Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Touching The Void

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 April 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

This is a movie about crazy people. The type of people who see a cliff face no-one has ever climbed, so high that the air thins and the temperature drops well below zero - let's make this very clear, these are not the environments in which human beings have evolved to thrive - and say, golly, this looks like fun. To compound this, the two young English mountain climbers in this movie then decide to climb this mountain in the Andes as they would an Alp, in one push, rather than in stages that allow for resupply. This, it strikes me, is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and if something goes wrong, well, you've kind of got it coming.

Now, there wouldn't be a movie if something didn't go wrong. Indeed, what happens as they descend the mountain is the very reason the phrase "things went horribly wrong" exists. And then, things got worse.

The outcome of this adventure is never seriously in doubt. Climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are both interviewed in the talking-head segments, so they obviously survive their ordeals - although without full body shots, it's still quite possible that they were maimed, somehow; I half expected the movie to end with a pull-back revealing amputated limbs (this doesn't happen). The purpose of this movie is not to keep the audience in suspense; it is to make it very clear to each and every member of the audience that we aren't nearly as tough as these guys. That, in similar situations, we would give up, fail, act indecisively, or otherwise behave in a manner that would conclude with our frozen corpses not being found for decades. Happily, Joe and Simon don't rub our faces in it. They are very matter of fact in their recollections. It's not just that they're telling the story nearly twenty years after it happened in a very English, self-effacing manner. Throughout the movie, terms like "bravery" and "courage" are never used. Words like "stubborn" are used instead, and not as euphamisms. They're very pragmatic: If you find yourself grievously injured halfway up a mountain with no rope, food, or water, getting to the bottom isn't brave; it's just something very difficult that you have to do.

Between the talking-heads sequences are re-enactments, which are well-done and nicely photographed. Unlike an IMAX film, these scenes aren't primarily meant to inspire awe in the terrible beauty of the mountains. There is that, especially when we're looking at the inside of a crevasse, but most of it is straightforward illustration of what Joe and Simon are telling us. It's the little "how we do it" details that would be tedious to explain but simple to show.

Indeed, this is a very humanistic movie. Director Kevin Macdonald doesn't personify nature as others might, portraying it as a force actively seeking to kill people stupid enough to defy it. It's just nature and doesn't feel a thing. Similarly, it's a nice change of pace to have Joe talk about how it did didn't occur to him to pray during his ordeal, and that he didn't believe in an afterlife. He got through it not because he had faith God would provide the means, but because he was a tough, resourceful human being who wanted to keep living.

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