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Vertical Limit

Reviewed by Tony W.



3  Poseidons

        With the possible exception of  urban fires, there can be few things more difficult to film credibly than high-altitude mountaineering. Even the best climbing documentaries call attention to their simplicity , usually through a preponderance of  fixed camera locations and extremes of either close-up or wide perspective. In David Brashears’ autobiography High Exposure, he cites the complexity, effort, and suffering required to film just 60 seconds of  IMax film on Mt.Everest. The producers  of Vertical  Limit  apparently  went to extremes (in this case Pakistan ) to film their climbing sequences. Such efforts to recreate actual  climbing  conditions are laudable. And expensive. Given this commitment, why not make the additional effort to get all the climbing details right?  Because the general viewer is so unfamiliar with the particulars of mountaineering,  does   it make sense to exploit this ignorance in the interest of profit and time? Apparently, it does. 

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        Almost every cardinal rule of climbing is broken in VL. In addition, many factual aspects of climbing are ignored or misrepresented. Obviously, a number of expert mountaineers were  hired to enable the filming of VL’s climbing sequences. They must cringe every time they see this film. Does it matter? Does the lack of authenticity detract from a film  when the audience doesn't know it? 
        Perhaps not. However, one should know that un-roped climbing on the second highest and most deadly mountain in the world is suicidal, especially above 20,000’ feet, the so-called “Death Zone” where heat is stripped away from one’s body so quickly that merely removing a  glove for 5 seconds can  result in amputation. And the Tyrolean traverse , in which a climber dramatically      swings hand-over-hand along a  horizontal  rope to bridge an abyss, is rarely employed. Ice axe belays, used by a climber to arrest a partner’s fall, are set with the belayer’s weight on top of the ax to anchor it as securely as possible in the snow. And, one does not (cannot) run faster than a moderate walk when wearing high-altitude double boots and crampons. 

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        But the characteristic pace and precautions of climbing offer as little visual interest as changing the oil in one’s car at the prescribed interval. Standing around for long periods, grinding  up a mountain like a snail, hauling loads, stopping after every step to take five breaths, wearing an anonymous cocoon to  preserve warmth and supply oxygen, and struggling upward in the dark for eight consecutive hours do not satisfy Hollywood’s action ideal. Thus, we are asked to suspend our criticisms of this fictional, razoo world of high-altitude climbing in the interest of the plot. Unfortunately, what VL calls a plot isn’t worth that     concession. 
        What trite element are we missing in VL? Not the requisite Family Split (sister vs. brother) which we know will be healed. Not the Wise Old Man with his burden of loss. Not the wealthy (and therefore evil) businessman whose egotistical goal to climb K2 will certainly cost the lives of his domestiques. Nor are we spared the stereotypical counterpoint of bad boy climbers from Australia with hearts of gold. And, finally, are we surprised to find love blossoming in such an improbable setting as the icy, lifeless slopes of the second highest mountain in the world? Not really. 

        So what’s not to like? How about the idea of using nitroglycerine on a mountain with high avalanche danger? Or strolling around above 20,000 feet with  one’s neck exposed. Or the preternatural physical accomplishments of the oxygen-deprived rescuers who survive one ordeal after another over a protracted period at an altitude at which  one’s body is literally dying by the hour. Or the K2  “basecamp” which resembles nothing so much as an alpine Ft. Lauderdale during Spring Break. And why can’t the richest climber in the world afford to carry enough “Dex” (the temporarily life-sustaining drug)  to save his skin several times over? Mostly,  the predictability of the storyline and the preposterous gamboling and unrelated action sequences on the mountain sabotage any advantages the mountain settings confer.
        But let’s judge this film by its signature, the oft-repeated preview shot of  Chris O’Donnell racing across a snowfield at 20,000’ with the speed of a track star (while wearing fully 5 pounds on each foot) only to fly across a vast chasm of rock and ice and affix himself to the opposite glacial wall with a pair of ice tools. His trajectory, which  should be parabolic, is impossibly horizontal. The crash  would  have knocked him off the wall. And, why, in the first place, did he not choose the simpler route of the original ascent party?  These “heroics” bespeak stupidity, not necessity. However, at this  point,  who cares? There are no surprises for us.  Sister is rescued by Brother. Bad Guy gets His. Tragic Old Man does the Right Thing. Boy  gets Girl. Hooray, this one’s over! 

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        Has there ever been a great mountaineering film? In my experience, it is a disappointing sub-genre.   K-2 , The Eiger Sanction,  The Mountain, Storms and Sorrow ,and Cliffhanger  come to mind. All use the mountain setting as the arena for the Arthurian Trial by which character is forged and  lesser beings confront the dire consequences of their lesser spirits. (Don’t the thirty-second commercials for the U.S. Marines  cover that territory?) It is surprising, however, that no attempt has been made to recount or fictionalize the saga of George Leigh Mallory’s heroic Everest attempts.  If  you enjoy these films for the exotic scenery, rent one of the many superb climbing documentaries available. They have more in the way of plot than VL.   
        There is, for  those who love animals, a single scene in this film that temporarily redeems it. Early on, Chris O’Donnell, as a National Geographic photographer, films two snow leopards at play on a snowfield.  These few seconds of graceful feline frolicking are pure delight.  VL would have been better if it were simply a two-hour loop of this cat fun.            



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