Touching the Void
2004
This gripping docudrama retells the mountaineering trek gone awry of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, who falls and breaks his leg while climbing in the Andes. Yates attempts to lower him to safety but fails, forcing him to make a pivotal decision.

Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

Ever since I read Roger Ebert's denunciation of mountain-climbing movies many years ago (basically: why should we worry for these idiots who put themselves into peril for their own hubristic pride?), I have been unable to muster much sympathy for the subgenre. "Touching the Void" is the best mountain-climbing film I have ever seen (out of, like, three) and will probably be hard to beat in the future, but it still couldn't break the curse. At a moment when the imperiled protagonist begins beating his head against the wall of ice shouting, "Stupid! You are so stupid!" all I could think was: "Yup."

But that doesn't mean it's not a well-made film. To translate Joe Simpson's firsthand account of the experience from book to film, director Kevin Macdonald arranged for Simpson and fellow climber Simon Yates to narrate, then he filmed extensive and grippingly realistic reenactments with actors and stunt climbers. It does diminish the suspense to see Simpson and Yates alive and well on camera, but since this is arguably the most famous incident in the history of the sport, there's little need to pretend. In fact, this film almost feels like it was intended for mountain climbers, as it spends almost no time explaining why these men would want to make such a deadly journey. I guess that much can be assumed.

Worth special mention are the cinematography and outstanding musical score, which elevate the sometimes plodding film into a rare level of excellence. Except for a clumsy sequence in which the protagonist loses his sanity, the film never breaks its intense spell and top-notch craft. It's riveting. I recommend a rental.

Perhaps worth mentioning is the story of seeing the film: I had gone to the theater to see "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra," but the 16-year-old night manager informed me that the reels had gotten lost in delivery. The only other movie playing at the time was some documentary called "Touching the Void." Having forgotten the title, I thought it was "Stepping into Liquid" and reluctantly bought a ticket. When the movie opened in a field of ice, it took me a few seconds to stop wondering where in the hell the surfers were.

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