Ascension; A Second Look
Film review by: Witney Seibold
In August of 2009, in a fit of playful critical pique, and as a fanboy-like writing exercise, I decided to compile a list of the worst films I had ever seen. I included some films that I had recently seen, a few disappointing sequels, and a few oddities lost vaguely in my memory, recalled only as unpleasant experiences. You can read the article here: https://witneyman.wordpress.com/2009/08/17/the-worst-movies-i-have-ever-seen/
One of the films on my list was one said oddity called “Death on Saturn’s Moon,” which I had seen at an AFM screening (AFM, the American Film Market, is the industry-only shopping grounds intended for distributors and film buyers. It’s generally not open to the public). I recalled the film as being dull and uneventful, and my negative opinion of it was only compounded by the fact that I was rejected from the screening I actually had entered the theater to see. For about a decade this film stayed in my mind as an unpleasant cinema experience.
When I wrote my article in 2009, I was contact by the director of “Death on Saturn’s Moon,” John Krawlzik, who pointed out to me that the version I had seen was an incomplete work print, and that I had no right to criticize the film in the manner I did. He was right. It’s unprofessional to criticize an incomplete film as if it were a whole. He also had the class to offer a free DVD of his completed film, now called “Ascension,” for me to re-review, and view with fresh eyes. He was as good as his word, and sent me a DVD, put out by Film Threat.
Dear readers, I have now re-watched the completed version of John Krawlzik’s “Ascension,” and I offer a new review below. I humbly admit that “Ascension” is very far from being one of the worst films I have ever seen, and is actually a pretty decent little sci-fi movie that, while flawed, does manage to complete some interesting thoughts on what is obviously a shoestring budget.
Let me start with the flaws: “Ascension” takes place in an understaffed moonbase on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and is constructed as a police procedural. Paul L. Nolan plays an investigator named Hayes who is trying to find out why the builder of said base, an unseen eccentric, decided to leave the base without his spacesuit. He suspects that one of the two remaining crew members might have some hand in the missing man’s death, but he is greeted with hostility and subterfuge. Sterner (Kurt Karibalis) deflects all of Hayes’ questions, and Lippert (Sally Mercer) seems perpetually zonked out on drugs (which, it turns out, she is).
Hayes begins having flashbacks to some horrible event in his past, which explains why he has been given such a crappy job. He is addicted to a mysterious narcotic.
The moonbase is a ramshackle building that only houses three, and, it is explained, was never even completed. It was intended to extract something valuable out of the very sands of Titan. The workload on the moonbase seems to be more than three people can handle, so perhaps it makes sense that someone would find the isolation and stress too much to bear. But would a company who could bring people and tools and construction materials all the way to Titan really leave it in such a sorry state? Why does Hayes need to be airdropped into the base? If the base is so important, how come there are no reliable communications to another entity? Would such a project be so intentionally isolated? Clearly getting people to this base is kind of a big deal. The actual details don’t make too much sense.
Hayes’ investigation continues, and he discovers a strange star-shaped crystal amongst the dead man’s belongings. The base creaks and moans with the pressure of the storms that have begun raging outside. Hayes’ visions/flashbacks become more intense, and the subterfuge of his charges begin to reveal certain things… Sterner on stops being an asshole briefly in one scene, and Lippert never stops being zonked, and even steals some of Hayes’ drugs. Eventually, Hayes begins to make connections that the dead man was probably having similar visions, and didn’t actually kill himself. I don’t want to give away the ending, but there are cosmic consciousnesses at work, and the title is a very literal one.
Despite its logical flaws, and occasional bouts of slow pacing and a-bit-too-abstract visuals, “Ascension” actually has a really good idea behind it, and is really very atmospheric. The workprint version I saw had incompleted special effects, a few missing scenes, and no music. Hence, it came across as a dull slog of people wandering down hallways to no discernible end. I compared it to “2001” and “Solaris,” but without the philosophical heft of those films. With the music in place, the film begins to take on a creeping, moody, dread-filled quality that really manages to draw the viewer in. Plus, I got to see the completed story, and I liked the philosophical conceit of “Ascension.” It was two parts “Star Trek,” one part “Solaris,” and a smidge film noir thrown in. It’s not as thrilling as any of those, but it’s smart and well made.
I’d also like to take an opportunity to praise Mr. Krawlzik for standing up for his film and getting me to take another look. He clearly worked very hard on “Ascension” for little-to-no money, and managed to make something watchable and workable. He has complete faith in his film, and wants it to be taken seriously. Mr. Krawlzik, I apologize for calling your film one of the worst I’ve seen. I was wrong.
Also, and this is unrelated to the movie, but it’s pertinent to this review: As a once-professional internet-only film critic, I have to admit that I thought it might have been fun to have a real-life rivalry with a film director. The publicity and clout that such a rivalry would have sparked could be entertaining to track, and create a personal tee-hee narrative I could constantly muse upon, in my mind and on the page. Krawlzik denied me such a rivalry by making a decent film. Oh well.