There's not much ascending in this independent science fiction film, but Appellate Judge Dan Mancini still thinks it's a better title than Death on Saturn's Moon.
On a distant moon…there's only one way out.
Back in 2000, writer-director John Krawlzik made an independent feature—his debut—called Death on Saturn's Moon. It was an attempt to revive the sort of speculative science fiction that relies on smart writing rather than spectacular visual effects. It failed to find distribution theatrically, on television, or in the home video market. Five years later, Krawlzik and Film Threat have revived the picture. Trimmed by seven minutes and renamed Ascension, it has finally made its way to the masses via our favorite digital format.
Facts of the Case
Ascension is set in the year 2057 and begins with Special Agent Hayes's (Paul Nolan, Ocean's Eleven) arrival at a research facility on Titan, a barren and hostile moon of Saturn. For reasons not immediately explained, Hayes is a weary man whose career is in a tailspin, and so he has been assigned a relatively meaningless mission: investigating the apparent suicide of the facility's project leader, Dr. Barnett. The chemist, it seems, stepped out onto Titan's surface without the protection of a space suit and has not been seen since. Hayes finds Barnett's colleagues—survey scientist Lippert (Sally Mercer, George Washington) and project engineer Sterner (Curt Karibalis, Weekend at Bernie's II)—cynical, evasive, and oddly unmoved by Barnett's death.
Hayes's investigation is complicated when one of Titan's many storms cuts off communication to his superiors. Reviewing the facility's video logs, he discovers a crystalline object of unknown origin and makeup, found on Titan's surface by Barnett. The research team was sent to the moon to perform a feasibility study on processing methane from the atmosphere, but Barnett was consumed with a different line of research having something to do with the frequent and violent storms plaguing the barren satellite of Saturn. But what had Barnett discovered about the storms, and how is it related to his death?
Film Threat's marketing material for Ascension bills it as a return to intelligent, psychologically-penetrating science fiction, and it is. Unfortunately, it's also derivative. The film's plot, setting, characters, and tone are so blatantly similar to Stanislaw Lem's great speculative science fiction novel, Solaris, one has to wonder if the possibility of legal action wasn't a big part of the reason Krawlzik had so much difficulty finding distribution for the film. The DVD's cover art and Film Threat's press materials are notably silent regarding both Lem and his novel, but they can't think they're fooling anyone.
That Ascension is essentially a sly, low-budget adaptation of Solaris is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, Solaris is a great novel, and Krawlzik's film offers an entirely different take on it than either Andrei Tarkovsky's Mosfilm masterpiece or Steven Soderbergh's more recent hit-and-miss production. Tarkovsky's sprawling adaptation has a decidedly philosophical and humanist bent that Lem reportedly considers a bastardization of his book. Soderbergh's film is preoccupied with emotional longing, and is undermined by an out-of-left-field turn of plot near the end. Neither movie bothers much with the speculative science in Lem's fiction—the notion that, were we to encounter extraterrestrial life, it would be so literally alien to us (as opposed to the humanoids with funny foreheads that litter the Star Trek universe) that categorization, let alone meaningful communication, would be impossible. Ascension comes much closer to grappling with this fascinating concept than either of the previous film adaptations.
The insurmountable problem Ascension faces, though, is that Krawlzik's inability or unwillingness to acknowledge his source prevents him from getting down to the nitty-gritty of Lem's tale. What's onscreen is a watered-down version of Solaris's deliciously smart sci-fi. There's a single shot in which Krawlzik suggests the planet-brain of Lem's novel, its wrinkled surface a violent swirl of electrical activity, but it's only a hint. The director fumbles toward profundity in the film's last act, with Sterner's cynical paraphrase of the second law of thermodynamics—in any closed system, disorder increases with time—but can't deliver the book's satisfying payoff without giving itself away as a copy. Still, those who haven't read Lem's novel may be able to enjoy Ascension's clear superiority to, say, nearly any example of the made-for-TV dreck produced by the Sci-Fi Channel, blissfully ignorant of its inferiority to the book. And Solaris fans may want to take a look, too: In the least, what we have here is yet another partially successful movie adaptation of the novel (yes, Tarkovsky's is a great film, but it's not a great adaptation of Lem), and a good-looking one at that.
Ascension won prizes for art direction and lighting at the 2004 Long Island International Film Festival, and those prizes are richly deserved. The movie may have been made on a budget, but it sure doesn't look like it. With only three actors on the payroll, what little budget there was, it appears, was mostly poured into sets. Carol Clouse's production design is everything it should be: cloistered, oppressive, utilitarian, and futuristic without being sterile. The research station on Titan isn't as grubby as The Nostromo in Ridley Scott's Alien, but it still has a lived-in look, like a more spacious version of the Mir space station. Clouse's work benefits enormously from the way it is lighted by Krawlzik and Steve Wylam, who share a cinematography credit on the picture. The lighting makes appropriate use of harsh, cold fluorescents considering the clinical nature of the setting, but also uses shadows and darkness intelligently to evoke mystery and fear. The juxtaposition of scenes that are brightly lighted with those that are darker and warmer is expertly used by Krawlzik and his crew to underpin the growing sense of dread and distrust among the characters.
Since Ascension is a psychological tale, the performances of its actors are crucial. Though none of the picture's three actors is a recognizable face, each does solid work. Could the material have benefited from the subtlety and power more experienced and talented actors could have brought to the project? Probably, but aside from some isolated moments that play a bit flatter than they should, the existing performances don't leave much room for complaint. As Hayes, it's up to Paul Nolan to carry the movie and he does well with the material he's given. Like Kris Kelvin, the hero of Lem's novel, Hayes is a man broken by his past. Unfortunately, since Ascension necessarily avoids the psychologically torturous hauntings that provide the impetus for much of Solaris's philosophical exploration, Hayes is broken in a far less compelling way than Kelvin. As a matter of fact, he comes off as a kind of clichéd fallen action hero.
Film Threat's DVD offering of Ascension is a quality job, with a solid A/V presentation (considering the film's low-budget roots) and a fairly plentiful array of extras. The movie doesn't have an original theatrical aspect ratio, obviously, but Krawlzik makes clear in the promotional materials that he framed shots so that they'd work at a 1.85:1 ratio in theatrical exhibition. For the DVD, however, he opted to present the movie full frame in order to "make the action feel even more claustrophobic." Opening up the frame's vertical space does, indeed, accomplish this goal, though it also makes Ascension feel less cinematic and is apt to annoy viewers with widescreen displays.
The transfer itself is excellent. Shot on 35mm with Arri 2C cameras, for the most part, the picture has a bit more grain than it would if larger cameras were used, but the image is still essentially smooth—we're not talking about the kind of coarse grain inherent in 16mm stock. Shadow detail and color accuracy are excellent, and digital artifacts are almost non-existent.
Audio is a simple Dolby Digital stereo mix, which is sufficient for the dialogue-heavy movie. The track is clear, detailed, and entirely free of any distracting source flaws. There are no subtitles.
Supplements include a feature-length commentary by John Krawlzik, Carol Clouse, Paul Nolan and other members of the crew. Nine deleted scenes—presumably the seven minutes cut to improve pacing for the picture's release on DVD—can be played individually, or together via a Play All option. "Home Movies" is approximately seven-and-a-half minutes of behind-the-scenes camcorder footage, narrated by Krawlzik. Much of it is focused on set construction. There is also a photo gallery that plays as an 18-minute slide show featurette, also narrated by Krawlzik. Finally, a theatrical trailer is archived on the disc.
Ascension may not compare all that well with Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, but it's still smart and psychologically probing in its own humble way. It's also a fairly remarkable independent feature debut by John Krawlzik, who clearly pursued the production with a lot of passion. Here's hoping Mr. Krawlzik keeps on keeping on.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Film Threat
• Commentary by the Director, Cast, and Crew
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