I recently rewatched this film and there is no doubt in my mind, this tremendous documentary still packs a whole lotta' punch!
Touching the Void is anything but a predictable action film. Indeed, the movie is a documentary or a docu-drama, instead of a conventional film and is based on the best-selling memoir by Joe Simpson of the same title. A large percentage of American audiences hear the word documentary and run screaming from the theatre. But this piece is different, the story and the adventure narrative behind it make the film an utterly compelling piece of entertainment.
In 1985, British mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates made a trip to the Peruvian Andes in order to scale the tremendously steep and as yet unclimbed west face of Siula Grande. The pair attacked the mountain using a relatively new style of climbing at the time. They ascended the peak employing an "alpine style." This particular method of climbing essentially indicates that the climbers ascend the mountain in a single push. This is in direct opposition to the rather old school "expedition style" of climbing, where ropes are strung from the bottom of the mountain to the top. The advantage to this latter method is that if something goes wrong, climbers can easily descend the mountain. The disadvantage to this style of climbing is that it takes a very long time to ascend to the summit. An expedition climb might take months, whereas an alpine style climb might take days.
Without giving too much away, it's enough to know that Simpson and Yates become seperated. We watch Simpson, broken at the bottom of a gaping crevasse, struggling to escape and we watch Yates back in basecamp, racked with guilt and dealing with the belief that his friend is dead. Much of the remaining film focuses on Simpson's battle to survive, while exploring the psycological and emotional trumoil surrounding the utter belief that he is going to die.
It is perhaps this last part of the film which strikes the average non-climbing audience member the most deeply. Existential angst runs through Simpson like blood as he lay dying in a crevasse. He swears, he weeps, and then hedecides that there is no God, that there is only the void. Tom Hanks rotting alone on a deserted island in Castaway never made such philosophical discoveries, nor have countless characters in countless films that were facing a lonely and horrible death. Indeed, it is this element which raises the film beyond a simple documentary about mountain climbers and makes it something more profound. This exploration of the void takes the film to a stage where it becomes a universal look at what it means to be alone and dying.
Director Kevin Macdonald expertly weaves this story together, intercutting interviews of present-day Simpson and Yates with images of the foreboding Peruvian mountain they climbed nearly twenty years ago. Two young actors, Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron are convincingly used to play the parts of these now middle-aged men, making the drama part of the docu-drama all that more intense.
Macdonald has shown a great deal of growth as a filmmaker. His previous Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September, delved into the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympics wherein a number of athletes were kidnapped and executed. One Day in September was spliced together using a combination of old footage and interviews in much the same way as this current film, but it never achieves the tightness and fluidity of Touching the Void.
Though Macdonald has put together a fantastic film, it does have a couple of shortcomings. The movie starts with clips of both Yates and Simpson speaking about their endeavor. As a result, before the action really starts, the audience is aware that both of the climbers survived their encounter with nature. This particular element draws back some of the tension which could have been created were the film shot without present day clips of Simpson and Yates speaking.
A secondary issue in the film is its length. At over a hundred minutes the movie begins to drag toward the end. There is a point where the audience knows that Simpson will survive and so for the sake of dramatic tension, Macdonald should have cut about ten minutes off the final scenes of the movie.
When all is said and done, Touching the Void is a powerful and dramatic piece of cinema which will surly go down in history as perhaps one of the best films about mountain climbing ever made. The scripts and the action of obscenely bad climbing movies like Vertical Limit and Cliffhanger have nothing on this movie. The reason they don't is because they are nothing more than fantasy. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are real people who survived a real life harrowing endeavor.
Indeed, they touched the void...
--Jason D. Martin