Mountain climbing is a difficult activity to translate onto film correctly. Conveying the sport’s majesty, loneliness and sense of danger while at the same time trying to relay a gripping narrative are counterintuitive: each gets in the way of the other. The latest addition to the slew of mountain survival stories, Kevin MacDonald’s new documentary/drama hybrid “Touching the Void” follows the worn footprints of its predecessors right off the cliff. Trying to hang on, MacDonald keeps changing tactics, but sadly never manages to convince the audience that his film’s is necessary. While this would seem to kill the movie, MacDonald does one thing very right that keeps things interesting. While it isn’t really worth seeing “Touching the Void,” it is worth hearing about it.
The narration of the real Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, the hapless climbers around whom the true story centers, has the quality of the best of fireside epics, drawing both imagination and emotions into play. As they tell the story of their infamous 1985 climbing expedition into the Peruvian Andes that goes horribly awry, every reaction traditionally expected of a human being is turned on its head. Listening to Joe say matter-of-factly that he expected Simon to leave him on the mountain to die after an accident that broke his leg is disturbing and surreal. An older world reawakens through their tale, one in which the laws of modern civilization and friendship no longer apply. Hearing each of them grapple with their animalistic behavior, listening to the wobble in Simon’s voice as he tries to justify the cutting of Joe’s lifeline is creepy to say the least. MacDonald succeeds in bringing out confessions that go against type, they are the stuff of real raw life. At one point the athletic, macho Joe drops to a whisper: “I thought I’d be tougher than that,” he says. This is “Survivor” on a life or death scale, where decisions are charged with import and a clear course to victory may not even exist.
Too bad MacDonald feels the need to supply images. His re-enactment of the story being told is utterly graceless, only a cut above TV melodrama. Each time something dramatic happens the camera-work becomes unfocused or grainy, trying to add an artificial tension that is simply overkill. Another blunder takes the form of long zoom shots over the mountain face, seemingly stuck in arbitrarily to add variety. There are a few moments when MacDonald hits upon the mysticism of climbing, the spirit within the mountain, but he abandons this motif to ill effect. If he could have been replaced by Peter Weir whose tuned visual articulation of both unease and the turbulence between man and the landscape would have lent the film a subtlety that supports the narrative, things might be different. As it is, though, the camera gets in the way of the words.
The actors assigned to play the parts of Joe and Simon are unconvincing and unneeded. Most of the time they don’t talk, except to express an emotion that Joe or Simon has just mentioned, which is not only redundant but farcical. This is a serious movie, not a game of Simon Says.
Again audio comes to the rescue in the form of the sound effects, which are really quite good. The crunch of the snow, the slice of a pick digging into ice or the dripping of water give the mountain a character that partially explains the climbers’ obsessive need to conquer it. However, the Zen-like atmosphere is shattered by the distressingly bad musical selections. “Touching the Void” illuminates most when it focuses on its human subjects rather than the mountain. If MacDonald had stuck to a purer documentary form he may have had greater success in focusing on the real Joe and Simon, and avoided the cheesy melodrama that eclipses the story. While it fails here, the documentary/drama combination is an interesting one that could be a rewarding route for more nuanced directors to pursue. Until NPR can be convinced to air the audio track (minus the music) the film is worth visiting only with the essential companion to “Touching the Void” in hand: a blindfold.