Writer-director Tom Paton has been making ambitious low-budget genre films with a distinctive feel for a few years now – Pandorica, Redwood, Black Site. Though it runs slightly long at 106 minutes, this is perhaps his strongest film to date – yomping through an action movie combat situation on repeat as a platoon of broadly-characterised grunts are stuck in a perhaps-posthumous time loop accessible by climbing endless flights of anonymous stairs with a rising darkness – and a witchy dead civilian (Julia Szamalek) urging them not to go down – at their heels to keep them playing the game over and over in the hope of affecting the outcome. Dialogue ranges from functional-but-allusive (‘I’ve a bad feeling about this’, ‘haven’t any of you seen Back to the Future 2?’) to comic book gritty-profound (‘I said I’d follow you into Hell but I never expected you actually to take us there’).
It opens before dawn in Eastern Europe, in a washed-out bluish light, with a UK-based team wiping out an enemy base, and conscience-bothered Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler) following the orders of almost manic NCO Stanton (Shayne Ward), to execute the civilian captive (aka ‘the Prophet of Death’). Evaced back to the UK, the team find the lift is out in their HQ and take the stairs – though one of their number has had a bad experience with staircases and delivers an ominous speech that suggests this might be her own personal hell. In the event, the phenomenon feels more like a hamster wheel timewarp, as doors every few levels lead back to the field of battle at the moment before dawn … and the team, who keep losing people, attempt a variety of interventions that don’t break the cycle, before hitting – a few iterations too late – on a possible sacrifice play that might mean some of them get to go home.
Like all of Paton’s films, this has some weighty thoughts – about war crimes and karma – along with some blunt point-scoring (having a thug on ‘their side’ execute civilians with the same ‘orders are orders’ excuse Stanton makes, then underlining it by having Clarke mutter ‘we’re no better than they are’) and a mixed-ability cast who sometimes struggle with dialogue but are mostly convincing in the many fight or shoot-out scenes. The best performance comes from Toby Osmond (Black Site, Dark Beacon) as the soldier grumbling about rescuing the prophet only to have her bite off his finger – limiting his ability to make rude gestures behind his comrades’ back. Bentley Kalu, who sort of went through this before in a very different price range in Edge of Tomorrow, is a solid physical presence.