Scott Mann’s Fall is an immediate survival masterpiece, and the first fictional film to tap into the mountaineering crazy that has infused documentary cinema over the last few years. We open with a soaring shot over the side of a sheer rock face that could be stripped right from Free Solo or The Dawn Wall, where a trio of climbers are slowly making their way to the top – Becky, played by Grace Caroline Currey, her best friend Hunter, played by Virginia Gardner, and her husband Dan, played by Mason Gooding. The horrific horizon of climbing docos emerges immediately here, as Dan loses his footing and plummets to his death, propelling Becky into a year of depression and mourning, and prompting Hunter to suggest a novel solution: dealing with her grief by climbing the B67 Television Tower. Loosely modelled on Sacramento’s KXTC/KOVR radio tower, this fictional structure was once the tallest man-made object in the United States, and at 610 metres, is high enough to have a warning light for planes. It’s not just high, either, but has massive prominence, since it’s situated in the middle of the desert, visible for miles around, even though its abandoned and long out of service.
While Fall taps into the climbing craze, it’s thus part of a more general drift towards the horror of vertical space in contemporary cinema. With television accommodating the widescreen spectacle of cinema, and phones generating every imaginable form of vertical screen spectacle, Hollywood has hit back with films that draw on that verticality, but emphasise it as a big screen experience. Fall feels like the flagship of a new generation of vertical horror, especially once the access ladder falls away to leave Becky and Hunter stranded at the top of the tower, itself nothing less than a widescreen spectacle shifted ninety degrees. Mann acknowledges this tension between horizontal and vertical space as the two women make their way to the tower – first, when they’re almost run down by a truck, and then when Becky watches herself pole dancing on her phone, but with the screen oriented to the horizontal.
As if to clarify that the horror here lies primarily in the fact of vertical space itself, Mann spends the first act simply detailing the approach to the tower, and the climbing of the tower. This is such powerful enough spectacle in itself to sustain an entire film, particularly since Mann is so scrupulous in withholding the tower as a totalising image. We rarely see it in its entirety, while the women have to walk two miles from the road to access it. Once they arrive, Mann brilliantly evokes all the gradations and thresholds of their climb, with the result that they already feel unbelievably high by the end of the first and easiest part of the ladder. As they ascend, Tim Despic’s score starts to resemble Vangelis’ opening to Blade Runner, evoking the same sense of unprecedented and unimaginable panoramic spectacle. Looking up through the middle of the tower, at an endless wormhole-like stretch of triangular rungs, the tone is closer to science-fiction than naturalism, as Hunter instructs Becky to “look up, and only up.”
Beyond a certain point, Fall is unwilling or unable to visualise the totality of this tower – it can only feel it, by shifting us into a more tactile and kinaesthetic register. To that end, Mann beautifully coordinates the furthest reaches of the tower, where it is anchored in the ground, with the minutiae of nuts and bolts, as Becky and Hunter make handholds and footholds, while interspersing these details with sweeping wide shots and tantalisingly infrequent vistas of the ground falling away beneath them. Suspense here is both physical and ethereal, in the same way that the tower is both bluntly present and an effervescent ecosystem of gradually devolving parts. At times, it’s not unlike the Final Destination franchise, as an accumulation of microscopic mechanical errors gradually lays the platform for an unknowable tipping-point.
The result is a compelling portrait of Gen X as they attempt to retain mindfulness in the midst of a hyperstimulated spatial freefall. Just as the digital media environment has decimated an older kind of physical space, the tower both invokes the physical network and the virtuality that it produces, since beyond a certain point there’s no way to orient ourselves as to just how high up we are. From the outset, Mann also frames the tower as a site of mediation, starting with the uncanny moment when Becky and Hunter glimpse it for the first time – or, rather, glimpse the light that warns off planes, from a diner where Hunter also shows Becky how to dismantle a table lamp to charge her phone. Between the light of the tower and the light of the table lamp, Mann situates the film in the space between charging a device and receiving a signal, and abstracts that space to the murky darkness outside the diner window.
It also emerges that Hunter’s motivation for climbing the tower is to increase her own media footprint. Not only does she hope to attract subscribers with daredevil feats once they reach the top, but she’s counting on Becky’s grief, and the narrative of overcoming it through the climb, to give their ascent an added emotional weight. Nothing in the film, or the friendship, is ever exactly outside of Hunter’s bid for followers, much as we only see the tower in daylight for the first time, and in its entirety for the first time, through Hunter’s phone. Her piece de resistance, once she arrives at the top, is to send out a drone to capture the staggering scale of space surrounding them, and then hang off the ladder with one hand for the money shot. No doubt, there’s a social media brinksmanship here, but it’s also accompanied by a sense that physical space itself doesn’t quite ramify, at least in Hunter’s case, meaning it’s only once the ladder falls away, and the two women are trapped, that their precarity starts to resonate.
This brings us to the central paradox of Fall – that Hunter is using the climb to situate herself at the centre of the current media universe, even though the tower itself is decommissioned, and belongs to the old-fashioned medium of television anyway, right down to a calcified satellite dish that no longer works. There’s a wry joke in here about television as ancient media, despite its claims to have superseded cinema in the present, just as the widescreen desert landscapes, now transplanted almost entirely to the sky, remind us that this tension between televisual and cinematic scale has already played out in the rise of the 50s western. Hunter is on the tallest antenna in the country, but she has no connectivity, so the survival narrative that follows becomes an allegory for Gen X’s driving fantasy: to traverse the trauma of digital space, and the vertical prison of their phones, and arrive at a mythical-physical point where the signal started, even if it’s defunct by the time they get there. Paradoxically, the two women here are too high for a phone signal, meaning that while Hunter may have shot the footage that will cement her as an iconic social media personality, she has no way to share it.
While Becky and Hunter are physically trapped on top of the tower, they’re thus also virtually trapped on their phones – they can pore over footage and messages, but they can’t connect with the outside world. Hence the strange notionality of this space, which is at once vividly physical, and oddly virtual, and breeds a specific survival imperative: to identify the precise threshold between physical and virtual life. If the tower is a continuum between the physical and the virtual, then the climbers have to map that continuum. They begin by “fishing for coverage” – lowering Hunter’s phone, with a message in the outbox, to discern the exact point at which physical and digital space converge in the shape of adequate reception. This returns us to the precarious pose that capped off their original arrival at the summit – Hunter hanging off the platform with one hand – except that there’s a more precarious threshold between different spatial schemes this time around. When this fishing doesn’t work, they try to reinforce the phone and drop it to ground, content to simply accept that it will pass the reception threshold at some point, even if they don’t exactly where that boundary will occur.
When that fails in turn, the climbers both lean even more heavily into the antiquated infrastructure of the tower and grow more ambitious in their desire to digitally traverse it. Realising that her drone, which fell with the ladder, has landed on the defunct satellite dish, Hunter makes a daring leap to collect it – or so it seems – before Becky hoists her back to the top. The threshold of cell phone receptivity is now reframed as the threshold of the drone’s trajectory, since there’s only so far and so high that the climbers can send it, physically, before it starts to move out of their digital range. That threshold is further complicated by the fact that the drone is low on battery, producing a daring final set piece in which Becky, recalling Hunter’s lesson in how to use a lamp to charge a phone, climbs to the uppermost point of the tower, unscrews the warning light for planes, and uses the fuse to fully charge up the drone.
This is the moment where the film comes full circle, and promises to square virtual and physical space. We started with Becky charging her phone on a lamp as she gazed at the light at the top of the tower, and now she is using that light to charge another mobile device. Reception and charge, as comforting coordinates of digital space, and thresholds between digital and physical space, are on the verge of being restored, as all the privations and challenges of the film reach their climax. Since the light fuse is fairly weak, Becky has to cling on top of the pole for hours, as Hunter motivates her from below by invoking the pole dancing video they watched en route to the tower. Again, the film comes full circle, promising to finally resolve its vertical and horizontal scales as the vultures that have circled around the duo from the beginning embark upon their main assault, in the midst of a storm, embodying both the precarious physicality and the glitchy digitality of this most liminal and transitory of spaces. Even as they rip flesh from Becky’s hands, they seem curiously disembodied, like fleeting emanations of the digital ether that threaten to disrupt the quest for reception and charge.
Nevertheless, Becky does make it down from the light, drone fully charged, and yet it’s at this very moment, on the cusp of connectivity, that Mann introduces the devastating twist of the film – that Hunter died when she landed on the satellite dish, meaning that Becky has been hallucinating her presence throughout her final ascent to the light. The dish turns out to have been too concrete, too present, in the same way that the drone ends up being too mercurial and ethereal, crushed the moment it hits the ground by the brute physicality of the same truck that almost skittled the two climbers as they set off for the tower. Physical and digital space remain dissociated, horizontal and vertical registers remain unresolved – until Becky comes up with a ghastly solution. Lowering herself to the dish, she cushions her phone in a shoe, like she and Hunter did the first time around, but then adds an additional layer of protection by placing the shoe inside the vulture-torn wounds of Hunter’s dead body, and tumbling her to ground. It works, the phone pings, help arrives, and Becky manages to survive.
Yet the ending of Fall is so muted and truncated that it barely seems to exist at all. Of course, that’s partly a result of Becky losing her friend – or, rather, losing two friends at once, since her hallucinations coincide with her realisation that Hunter was sleeping with Dan at the time he fell to his death. But there’s a more insidious suggestion in her final strategy, and its dissonance with the film’s project of trying to find the exact threshold between digital and physical life. After expending so much ingenuity in an attempt to pinpoint this cusp along the continuum of the tower, it turns out that the virtual was always already embodied in the physical, in the same way that the phone only gains reception when embedded in Hunter’s body. Only by accepting that she can never imagine a body or space before the digital can Becky survive, just as Hunter can only map the digital-physical cusp along the tower continuum by crossing it as a corpse. Hunter’s videos go viral, reiterating this cusp between the dangers of physical space and the notional safety of digital space, but she never lives to see the threshold she ostensibly erected, which depends precisely upon her death. Instead, she’s jettisoned into all the redundant, blank, unreadable space left behind by the digital world, and the audience are left in the same void, in a neverending freefall down the tower.