In 2019, you can’t do cinematic time travel without a nod to Back to the Future 2. Robert Zemeckis’ classic has been name-checked in everything from Happy Death Day 2 U through to the global behemoth Avengers: Endgame. It even pops up in Tom Paton’s Stairs. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a shocker.
The action follows a rather interchangeable group of military types who form a crack unit led by the hyper-aggressive Stanton (X Factor winner Shayne Ward making his movie debut). In a hideously blue-tinged opening sequence – it looks a little bit like Paton left his film in the washing machine with an Avatar sequel – they take out a group of enemy combatants and also execute a mysterious young woman they find there. Her only words are “don’t go down”. When they return to base for a debrief, the lift is out of order. “Looks like we’re taking the stairs,” deadpans one character as the audience is treated to a foreboding montage of steps.
Soon, anyone who turns back down the seemingly endless staircase is killed by something or other and the only solace is in a series of doorways which seem to allow the unit to travel back in time in order to fix their failures on the day of the operation. With depressing regularity, the narrative plunges into the crepuscular, blue world (da ba dee) with – alarmingly – even less coherence than the first time around.
The central gimmick and idea at the centre of Stairs is packed with potential. They are trapped in what is transparently an evocation of purgatory, aware they can’t go down for fear of descending into hell but struggling with the fact that heaven seems to only get further away. However, Paton’s script is so lacking in nuance that there’s no room for any of the characters to grow. They’re blunt, bland instruments with nothing of note to make them interesting.
This is encapsulated by Ward’s character – a hideously macho commanding officer who loves nothing more than to issue an order. His commitment to the mission at all costs means he’s more than willing to die on the stairs and he has a seriously antagonistic relationship with Samantha Schnitzler’s Kia, which never gets any depth or explanation. It’s difficult to discern whether Ward has the chops for a movie star career, stepping away from his three years as a soap star on Coronation Street, as his role is little more than a cacophony of yelling. As for the rest of the cast, neither their names or a single element of their personalities come to mind, which is damning.
Stairs forgets the golden rule of cinematic time travel, which is to keep it as simple as possible. From Back to the Future to Groundhog Day, the best examples of the genre deal in simplicity above all else, while Stairs culminates in a finale so thoroughly chaotic that it’s often impossible to tell amid the murk and the gunfire whether their interference in past events has actually changed anything. The action wasn’t clear to begin with, so the foundations of this are shaky from day one.
Most saddening, though, is how po-faced the whole movie is. Time travel is an inherently silly conceit that is best served by a certain amount of self-aware comedy. Stairs is told by Paton – a FrightFest veteran – with the straightest of faces, as if primed for a movie that would really explore the psyches of its characters. Unfortunately, this is mostly just a film in which people yell at each other on stairs, or run around shooting at each other in fuzzy near-darkness.
It’s less an exhilarating stairway to heaven and more a pretty miserable road to nowhere.
Dir: Tom Paton
Scr: Tom Paton
Cast: Samantha Schnitzler, Shayne Ward, Toby Osmond, Bentley Kalu, Spencer Collings, Phoebe Robinson-Galvin, Alana Wallace, Sophie Austin
Prd: George Burt, Alexa Waugh
DOP: George Burt
Music: Max Sweiry
Run time: 100 mins
Stairs will have its world premiere at FrightFest on 26th August.