Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Film Review: Touching the Void

The following review was first published at Movies Online in 2003. Touching the Void has been available on DVD for nearly six years and may be obtained at any video store. This piece was written for a non-climber audience.

I recently rewatched this film and there is no doubt in my mind, this tremendous documentary still packs a whole lotta' punch!


In the 1993 catastrophe of a film,
Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone scaled vertical rock walls in freezing ice storms wearing nothing but a tank top. In the year 2000, Tom Cruise ascended a steep desert tower without ropes or any other type of climbing gear to protect himself in Mission Impossible 2. And who could forget Chris O'Donell as a nitroglycerin toting rescuer in that ludicrous attempt at a climbing movie called Vertical Limit? Yes, big Hollywood movies which include mountain climbers of any type over the last few years have done little more than to portray ridiculous plots with equally ridiculous characters. So walking into the new independent film Touching the Void was a little frightening. The last thing I needed to see was yet another half-witted actor struggling to remember five word sentences in a mind-numbing action movie.

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.

Unfortunately for Simpson and Yates, something did go wrong during their alpine style climb. While descending the mountain Simpson fell and seriously broke his leg. As the men didn't have any means of easily descending the mountain, Yates was forced to lower Simpson down a steep icy slope a few hundred feet at a time. They managed to descend a large portion of the mountain before a second incident occurred, an incident that has become an integral part of modern mountaineering lore...

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


Anonymous said...

I saw this movie a couple nights ago and it was riveting. I'm not a climber, and have no wish to climb, especially after seeing this movie! But I admire the strength and skill of climbers; I just don't "get" their need to climb.

Anyway, what I keep wondering is why didn't Simon stay to see if Joe was still alive in the crevasse? I remember he said he thought Joe was dead, but that maybe he should have looked. Maybe he wasn't thinking clearly, but unless I missed something, this seems to be the only reference in the movie to his leaving without checking on the condition of his friend. I would think that would be a far greater source of guilt than having cut the rope. I feel sorry for him, and the guilt he probably still carries must be a heavy burden. Anyone have any comments about this?

American Alpine Institute said...

My guess is that he made an assumption that Joe was dead. And he didn't have the heart to look down into the crevasse to see his crumpled friend.

In addition to this, he was still at high altitude and hadn't eaten or drank for a long period of time. The combination of all these things probably led to him not looking...

Of course there is a more sinister possibility...the possibility that he didn't look because he was afraid that Joe might still be alive. And if Simon confirmed this, then there would be a lot more dangerous and disheartening work to do before he was safe at camp...


Unknown said...

I think he didn't check on Joe mostly because he would have had to climb down into the crevasse to even see where Joe was. He had no idea there was an exit from the crevasse deeper down, and climbing in a crevasse is very dangerous. It would make cutting the rope meaningless if Simon subsequently died in a crevasse.

Anonymous said...

It was also likely risky to walk over to the crevasse. If the crevasses were buried, as shown in the movie, then getting to the lip, solo and unroped would mean risking falling into a different crevasse on the way. Moreover, if the crevasse were buried, and all Simon could see is the hole where Joe fell, then you don't know which way the crevasse is oriented (one point is not enough to define a line). Approaching the hole might mean breaking through the snow into the same crevasse.

These risks might not have made sense if Simon thought Joe was most likely dead anyway.

Certain precautions might be taken to minimize these risks, but combined with the effects of exhaustion and low oxygen on the mind it starts to paint a more sensible picture, at least for me.