Ascendant M, 101 minutes, 3 stars
To begin with, a note of clarification: this film is no relation to the cancelled film in the Divergent series. It's an original Australian movie that, while sometimes hard to follow and with some contrived or implausible elements, is impressively atmospheric, well made and well acted. Ascendant is Antaine Furlong's feature film debut as director and (with Kieron Holland) writer.
The film jumps into its action quickly and seems to be set in the near future.
Aria Wolf (Home and Away actress Charlotte Best, who impressively handles the physical and emotional requirements of the role) isn't having a good day.
She wakes up bound, gagged and blindfolded and with no memory of how she got where she is. When she frees herself, she discovers she's on board an elevator in a very tall building in Shangai. Someone is making the lift go up and down, repeatedly and speedily, so she's often on the ceiling rather than the floor (the joys of physics).
Aria has a couple of links to the outside world. One is a mobile phone which provides information (for both her and the audience) and a way to communicate with others, including potential rescuers. So far, it sounds like a confined-space thriller in the vein of Buried, though Aria's elevator is a lot more spacious than the coffin in which Ryan Reynolds' character was buried in the earlier film.
Then a (large) screen comes on which shows her father (Jonny Pasvolsky) being tortured by some nasty Russians led by Yaroslav (Alex Menglet). It seems her father is a US federal agent who won't divulge the whereabouts of a mysterious man known as the Engineer and they think she can help.
Why the bad guys would need to go to such lengths with Aria - putting her on an elevator and accessing surveillance equipment to control it and communicate with her in order to obtain information - is one of the questions that occurred to me and didn't seem to be answered during the course of the many climbs and falls the lift made during the movie. Surely if they can interrogate and torture her father in an up close and personal way, they can do the same with her? It feels like a Bond villain set-up, designed for the amusement of the perpetrator and the audience rather than being efficient and practical.
The movie so far is a thriller but we also get flashbacks to her family that suggest there's something else in the mix - something that involves the supernatural. We gradually learn more about this but it remains somewhat opaque, making the pay-off less effective than it should have been. More clarity would have helped as the shift in focus is considerable, especially towards the end of the film.
The cast here is good - as mentioned, Best is very impressive, and Menglet as the nasty head bad guy does a good line in almost-charming menace, while Pasvolsky suffers effectively. The voice cast on the phone do well, too, though sometimes their dialogue is hard to make out clearly.
The production design and cinematography help to create the threatening feel of the environment - as a lifelong acrophobe, I find views from high places difficult to deal with even when watching them in cinemas, and there's plenty of that sort of thing here, including scenes where Aria is outside the elevator on very narrow catwalks that made my palms sweat.
While some story elements might be a little murky, Ascendant is particularly effective in terms of acting and atmosphere. The special effects work well and the film's ambitions don't overreach its budgetary constraints. Furlong is a talent to follow.