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"Touching the Void"

Directed by Kevin MacDonald.
Based on the book by Joe Simpson.
Starring Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey.
Release Year:  2003

Review Date:  2/26/04 


I had bumped “Touching the Void” to the back of the crowd since it wasn’t on my Oscar list...but damn, this is a great film, and it’s maybe the most tense docudrama I’ve ever seen because the mountain footage is so well filmed.

The movie, based on a 1986 expedition in Peru, is told by director Kevin Macdonald from two perspectives:  one as a documentary, where two men—Joe and Simon—discuss to the camera the travails of going on a mountain climb that no one had ever completed, and one as a drama, featuring actors that play out what happened that fateful week up in the mountains.  As such, it’s sort of like a History Channel hour-long special, except the actors are actually good and the production looks like it was shot on a real mountain, as opposed to somebody’s backyard.  (Seriously, don’t you love those specials on History that chronicle stuff from, say, World War II?  It’s like they rounded up 30 guys from a local high school football team and put them in uniforms and say “On ‘action’, run across the beach and pretend you get hit by gunfire!”  And of course, they recycle the footage like 24 times during just that one hour.  Truly hilarious.)

For Macdonald, the film writes itself, so his mountain footage is crucial to show us non-climbing folks just exactly how things go wrong, and this footage is brilliant.  It helps that the two men, who tell the story almost 20 years after it happened, have remembered even the most miniscule of details; even more significant is that Macdonald films the two men speaking separately about the same day, as opposed to having them sit together.  Together, the climbers would have been more likely to collaborate the happenings, as opposed to being more honest about what happened and the emotions they went through as the week wore on.  We are given a result that at times is quite touching, especially as the expedition breaks down halfway through “Touching the Void” when the men are separated on their descent.

As I was watching this flick, though, I was constantly shaking my head at what drives a man to climb a mountain that is so dangerous that he will have a 75% chance of not only not reaching the summit but perishing on the verticals slopes of a mountain.  Each man has his own reasons in the film, but I thought back to that book “Into Thin Air”, another failed-climb story, and I kept thinking, “Hey, I’m down with the thrill-seeker in all of us, but is it so boring that you wouldn’t want to climb a mountain just a little bit safer?”  I’m still not clear on this, but didn’t Joe and/or Simon have wives or kids at the time?  What spouse says to another “Hey, good luck on that treacherous, no-one’s-ever-made-it-back hike you and your friend are going on in Peru!  Kisses!”  Being sent to war is one thing; climbing a mountain a total other, but I’m still very intrigued by the mountain climber’s mentality when it comes to hikes this dangerous.  Part of me didn’t really feel bad for what had happened to the two guys that week...didn’t you sign up for near-death experiences?

But, that’s the kind of film “Touching the Void” is, really...beautiful visuals, emotional story, with strong detail of the emotional impact an experience like this has on the human psyche.  And, it drives conversation about it afterwards for hours.

Rating:  Opening Weekend


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09