Thursday, June 11, 2020

Black Ops: Take the Stairs

You have to improvise during a dodgy commando mission. Inflexible adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of the objective is definitely bad leadership. Unfortunately, a Queeg-like team-leader insists on following their orders to the letter, even if it results in a war crime. The entire squad will pay dearly—perhaps for all eternity in Tom Paton’s Black Ops (a.k.a. Stairs, a.k.a. The Ascent), which releases tomorrow on VOD.

The orders were simple: collect intel and kill everyone in the guerilla camp. Nobody knew they were holding a civilian prisoner, but Stanton forced (at gunpoint) the reluctant Kia Clarke to shoot her too. Turns out she had a bit of the shine or whatever, because her dying curse turns out to be quite potent.

When the team arrives for their de-brief, a malfunctioning elevator forces them to climb the stairs and climb and climb. Eventually, they figure out there are in some kind of supernatural Hell or Purgatory. If they do not keep climbing sufficient floors within an allotted time, they will die a grisly Scanners-ish death. When they exit the stairwell, they mysteriously find themselves back at the paramilitary camp, right before their earlier selves launched the fateful strike. Clarke quickly decides they must somehow stop themselves from killing the weird prisoner to break the Sisyphean punishment, but the knuckle-dragging Stanton refuses to cooperate, despite the karma trap he led them into.

The infinite staircase is a rather surreal, but the film really shines when the unit starts trying to change history. The way Paton layers each time loop over the ones that came before is surprisingly clever. Paton quite nimbly directs the time traffic and blends each successive foray into the recent past, earning comparison to Nacho Vigalondo’s TimeCrimes and Hugh Sullivan’s Infinite Man (which is high praise).

Paton and cinematographer George Burt also give the film a grungy, gritty texture very much as they did for Black Site. The two films do not constitute a duology, but they share stylistic and thematic common ground. They also both co-star Samantha Schnitzler and Bentley Kalu, who are terrific (again), as Clarke and Ben Garrett, two particularly resilient commandos.

In terms of category, Black Ops falls closer towards the horror end of the spectrum (at least when it is in the stairwell), but Paton and his ensemble still crisply and convincingly execute a number of action scenes. There really is a lot of cool stuff here for genre fans. Highly recommended for fans of genre-straddling in the Twilight Zone tradition (in its darker manifestations) and scruffy sf-tinged horror (like Joe Begos’ The Mind’s Eye), Black Ops releases tomorrow (6/12) on VOD platforms.