Touching the Void dir. Kevin Macdonald

Opens Fri Jan 23.

Early in this drama-documentary, either Joe Simpson or his mountain-climbing countryman Simon Yates (I can't recall which) explains to the interviewer, director Kevin Macdonald, the reason why he enjoys placing his life in harm's way. He offers an explanation along the lines of: "Life in the modern world is so safe, so predictable, so controlled.... That is why I long for the mountains.... It is there, high on a cliff, that I get a sense of danger, a thrill from the awareness that at any moment I might fall and die."

As an African who comes from one of the poorest countries in the world, a place where a majority of the population lives perpetually in harm's way, you can easily imagine what went through my mind when I heard an evidently well-to-do Englishman say these words with that air of pomposity (if not boredom) that's always the mark of a public school education. But it would be too easy to criticize this film on such terms; it would place me on too high a moral ground. Being something of a gentleman, I would much prefer to take this drama-documentary to task on a more leveled plane, and confront it only as a work of cinema.

Touching the Void is made of three parts, the main of which being the story itself. Cutting between the talking heads of present-day Simpson and Yates and the dramatization of the events that took place in 1985, some of which was filmed on location in the wilds of Peru with two actors (Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron), the documentary recounts their legendary climb of the Siula Grande, whose summit is 22,000 feet above the level of the sea. In their mid-20s at the time, the two fly to Peru to defeat the then-unconquered peak. After setting camp at the base of Siula Grande, they begin their climb and reach the summit in just two days. On the way down, however, they meet with an accident, which costs Simpson the use of his right leg. Disabled by incredible amounts of pain, Simpson's chances of survival are reduced to nearly nothing: The way down is treacherous; the nights are too cold; the wind chill is minus 80; supplies are low; and they have no radio contact with the civilized world. At this point, the rational thing for Yates to do is abandon Simpson, return to Great Britain, and organize a memorial service for his brave companion.

Instead, Yates does the irrational thing and tries to help his injured partner. With the use of a rope, they make their descent at a snail's pace. While lowering Simpson down a precipice, Yates loses communication with his dangling partner. The cold day ends, the freezing night arrives, and Simpson is still dangling. Yates can't raise Simpson; Simpson can't reach the bottom. Finally, Yates does the rational thing: He cuts the rope, and his friend falls into a fantastically deep crevice. Yates returns to the camp alone.

The rest of the movie focuses on Simpson's super-arduous crawl down the rocks and ice of the unforgiving mountain. During this ordeal, the impressive shots of the mountain range that dominated the first quarter of the film are replaced by close-ups showing Simpson (or the actor playing Simpson) and his worsening condition. The deterioration of his appearance is not only unpleasant to watch, but tedious; it goes on and on and on. And just when you think his mangled face is about to fall off his head and roll down the snow, somehow, someway, it manages to hold on and only look worse than it did before. This might explain why Tom Cruise, who apparently considered playing the part of Simpson, ultimately declined the project: For much of the film, the role would have covered his good looks with horrible sores and deep flesh cracks.

It is during Simpson's crawl that the film's second part is revealed: Simpson's existentialism. He is by birth Catholic, but very much doubts the existence of God or an afterlife. When death appears before him in the depths of the ice cave that is threatening to become his eternal tomb, he looks at it (death) and then looks inside of his soul, wondering if from it a warm impulse, a sudden sensation of hope, will awaken his faith in God. He feels nothing but the cold of the cave. Accepting the reality of this nothingness, above which all human life is suspended by a thin thread, he manages to crawl out of the cave and, inch by inch, make his way back to the life of the camp.

Finally, the third part of the film is about climbing itself--about the equipment, and the specialized language of climbing. Those who take this form of recreation seriously will most enjoy this part of the film, with its healthy chunks of climbing wisdom, its descriptions of the multiple dangers that challenge the mountaineer. We learn about the type of snow that covers Siula Grande, and what this type of snow means to Simpson and Yates. They can also read slight changes in the weather, and direct their upward progress accordingly. I'm not sure if Simpson and Yates are still active mountaineers, but it is clear that just speaking about their famous climb, detailing it in that near-formal language which distinguishes professional mountaineers from amateurs, gives them a pleasure that is satanic in its size and intensity.

This is the double thing that they live for: the actual climb and, be it in a pub, or over supper, or in front of a movie camera, recounting the experience of that climb. But if you are not interested in mountaineering and happen to be in this pub, or sitting at the supper table, or in the movie theater, listening to the story, you will be bored to death. Yes, the mountain is beautiful, and the perils that confront the climb are numerous. But this is still not enough to fully engage an art as big as cinema. Touching the Void should have existed for 30 minutes on the Discovery Channel, not 106 minutes at the theater.

Support The Stranger