Touching the Void
MGM // R // $29.98 // June 15, 2004
Review by John Sinnott | posted June 2, 2004
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Graphical Version
The Movie:

In 1985 two skilled British mountain climbers, 25-year-old Joe Simpson and 21-year-old Simon Yates traveled to Peru for a new challenge.  They wanted to climb a mountain that no one had previously been able to scale.  These young adventurers choose the western face of Siula Grande in the Andes, a climb that had been attempted but never accomplished.  Simpson and Yates were young, fit, and very determined; they wanted to carve a place for themselves in the annals of climbing.  Little did they realize that they would do just that, but not for climbing the mountain, but for surviving against all odds.  This difficult climb soon turned into disaster when Joe Simpson broke his leg in several places after a fall.  As bad as that was, things were going to get worse.  A lot worse.  Their story is told in the girpping movie Touching the Void, based on Joe Simpson's book of the same name.

When Simpson and Yates started to climb the Siula Grande they were young but already experienced mountaineers having scaled many peaks in Europe.  They chose to climb this peak Alpine style; without setting up stocked camps and supply depots, they would do it in one big push, carrying all of their supplies with them.   They made a base camp, left an acquaintance they had met in Peru to watch over it for them, and started up the mountain.  On the assent, a storm blew up which slowed them down quite a bit, bu not too seriously.  They persevered and on the third day, they successfully scaled the heretofore unclimbed west face and reached the summit.

As they started down, taking an easies route for their descent, some clouds blew in and they experienced a whiteout.  They lost sight of the ridge that they were following, and that slowed them down.  That night, they used up the last of the heating fuel, but the pair were not concerned since they expected to finish their descent the next day.

On the fourth day Joe, who was leading, fell off an embankment and shattered his leg.  It was a very serious break, and they were 20,000 feet up the side of a mountain that no one had climbed before, with absolutely no possibility of rescue.  There was really no way they could both make it down alive.  Joe couldn't climb down a mountain with a mangled knee, and if Simon were to stay and help Joe, he would tire himself out and neither of them would live.  But Simon did not leave his companion.  They had two 150-foot long ropes, and they knotted them together.  Simon would lower Joe 150 feet, and then Joe would stand up on his good leg to give the rope some slack.  Simon would then disconnect the rope from the series of metal hoops that he was using to lower his friend, since the knot wouldn't fit through, reconnect it on the other side of the knot and lower him another 150 feet.  Simon would then climb down to where Joe was and repeat the process.

They were making good time, though the descent was incredibly painful for Joe's leg.  It had turned to night, but the two wanted to get down as fast as they could.  They were afraid that if they camped for the night, a storm would blow in again and they could be trapped there for days without food, heat, or water.  So they continued going.

Then disaster struck again.  Joe was lowered off of a ledge, but the rope reached the knot before he reached the ground below.  He was dangling in mid air, 80 feet above the next ledge, and too far from the cliff face to reach it.  His hands were frozen and he couldn't climb up the rope with one good leg and a heavy pack on his back.  Simon couldn't pass the knot through the metal rigging with Joe's full weight on the rope.  They stayed like that for over an hour and a half: Joe swinging in space, and Simon being slowly pulled downward.  Simon knew that he would eventually fall off the mountain, so he did the only thing he could do:  He cut the rope.

Joe fell 80 feet to the ledge below, and then tumbled into a crevasse, landing on an outcropping 50 feet below the surface.  There was no possible way for him to climb out.  Simon spent the night where he was, and in the morning continued his descent.  He saw the ledge and understood what had happened the night before.  Realizing that Joe must have fallen down the crevasse, and knowing that there was no way for him to have survived, he continued down to the base camp unknowingly leaving his severely injured friend behind.   How Joe managed to get down the side of the mountain all by himself is one of the greatest survival stories ever told.

This movie is fantastic.  It is a nail-biting, knuckle-clenching, true-life adventure.  This is one of those stories that if it happened in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, people would complain that it was to implausible.  But this really happened, which makes it all the more astonishing.

Simpson and Yates tell the story themselves, and their tale is intercut with reenactments of the events, and scenes of the mountain in Peru.  This is a very powerful way to tell this amazing story.  Since the people who experienced this are telling the story, you know that they live, and that makes the movie all the more shocking.  When Joe breaks his leg, you expect him to die.  Since you know he doesn't, you wonder how he gets down.  As things go from bad to worse, I was constantly amazed that Simpson lived.  Had I not known that ending, I would have assumed that he died, and been pleasantly surprised at the end.  But as it was I marveled at the courage and persistence that this man possessed.  There is no reason that he should have lived, just about everyone else on the planet would have given up.  But he didn't, and the story of his survival is equal to Shackleton's adventure on the Endurance.  It is a truly amazing story.

The movie itself is beautiful to watch.  The magnificent vistas and majestic mountainscapes are absolutely awe-inspiring.  The fact that people would climb up these huge formations is equally remarkable.   The cinematography really makes the picture.  Filmed under less than ideal circumstances in the Alps, the movie puts you right on the side of the mountain with the climbers.  You can almost feel the cutting wind blowing powder snow into their faces.  You can see their breath and feel their panic as they realize how bad their situation is.  This is a wonderful film to watch.
 


The DVD:



 

Audio:

The 5.1 English soundtrack was excellent.  The sound was very clear, you could hear the snow crunching beneath the climber boots and their labored breathing as they repelled down the slopes.  Great use was made of the surround channels, with the sound of ice breaking away coming from the front speakers and then falling behind you thanks to the rears.  The wind blows from all around really putting you in the middle of the movie.  It is not often that a mainly dialog based movie has an audio track that really enhances that viewing experience, but this one does.

Video:

The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 picture was astounding to view.  The image was beautifully clear, with excellent detail and great contrast.  You could differentiate the different hues of the blue ice when Joe was trapped in the crevasse, and the night scenes appeared dark without sacrificing the details.  There were no obvious digital defects, even the blowing snow looks good, something that is hard to encode properly.  Like the audio, the video on this DVD is top notch.

The Extras:

There is some interesting bonus material on this DVD.  First off is a 23-minute making-of documentary.  This had a few too many clips from the movie, and it didn't spend as much time on the actual filming as I would have liked, but it was still much better than your average HBO promo piece.  Next up is another documentary on the filming of the movie, Return to Siula Grande.  This shows Simpson and Yates' first return to the mountain since they left in 1985.  There are excerpts from Simpson's video diary on his feelings and superstitions about returning, and they document what it is like filming in such a remote area.  This was a very interesting extra.

Another excellent featurette is What Happened Next.  This ten minute piece relates what happened immediately after the film ended, as told by the participants themselves.  Their comments are accompanied by actual photographs taken at the time.  While the movie ends at the proper point in the story arc, this peice answers a lot of questions that still lingered unanswered.

There are also several trailers for other MGM movies.

Final Thoughts:

Simpson's best selling book is faithfully brought to life in this amazing movie.  The obstacles that were surmounted and the difficulties that were overcome are astounding and almost unbelievable.  But aside from a great story, this movie also looks and sounds fantastic.  The scenery is beautiful and the cinematography excellent.  The bonus materials add a lot to the story, making this DVD a great package all around.  DVDTalk Collector Series.



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