A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, no MPAA rating, 106 mins.

Simpson: Brendan Mackey / Yates: Nicholas Aaron / Himself: Joe Simpson / Himself: Simon Yates

Directed by Kevin Macdonald /
Written by Joe Simpson, based on his book

If there were ever a film that completely reaffirms my distinct belief that mountain climbing has to be one of humanity’s most insane of leisure activities then it is surly Kevin Macdonald’s TOUCHING THE VOID.  

The very prospect of even attempting to climb a dangerous mountain seems daunting and scaring to me.  What if there were complications?  What if you made it up but could not make it down?  If you were stranded, who would come to save you (we're not talking about being left on the highway with a flat tire here, folks)?  Moreover, what if you critically injured yourself?  How would you be able to make it back to civilization alive and in one piece?  Surely, mountain climbing is for those in peak physical condition with all of their motor functions in proper working order.  But what if, just what if, you critically broke your leg during your decent?  How in the world would you ever make it out in one piece?   

Okay, this all sounds like the most absurd of nightmares, but this is precisely what TOUCHING THE VOID is all about: It details the very visceral nightmares we have all probably had about the problems that could go wrong by mountain climbing in the most dangerous of conditions.  It’s a film that has multiple identities – it both celebrates the men that climb mountains as courageous, brave, strong, and audaciously willing to achieve a goal, but it also paints a portrait of them as being, well, more than just a little crazy for thinking that their exploits would make for a four day expedition of fun and excitement.  TOUCHING THE VOID is in the great tradition of psychological horror films, one in which the people are being challenged and tormented by the very elements that they fight against to achieve their goals.  It’s one of the most exhausting filmgoing experiences that I've had in quite some time, and its sheer power in immersing me in its story of tension, mind-numbing terror and danger is a testament to what a powerful film it really is.  It's simply one of the truly best stories about mountain climbing, if not human survival,  that has graced the screen in a long time. 

TOUCHING THE VOID is told in a very unique marriage of real footage of interviews with three of the key figures of real historical expedition with absolutely breathtaking recreation footage of the mountain climb with actors.  It’s a completely self-contained and seamless method of dramatically retelling the story.  We get the human drama of the men, recalling the key incidents, along with footage created that explains, in wonderful detail, the whole story behind their climb.  Some critics have pained to point out that there is no sense of inherent drama or tension in the film, as the people themselves narrate the film, thus precluding that they all survived their ordeal.  Yet, that should not be held against this film.  TOUCHING THE VOID does not work marvelously as a thriller about whether or not people will survive their ordeals; rather, it’s about how people survive.  We know they all most certainly lived to tell the tale, but it’s all of the little secondary and tertiary details that make for a fabulous story. 

This pseudo-documentary details the real life exploits of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates.  It relays how, in 1985,  two young twenty-something Brits were sure as hell determined to scale the forbidding west face of a mountain named Siula Grande, in the Peruvian Andes...or die trying.  The men were in peak physical condition and were more than mentally prepared to take on this seriously daunting task.  Perhaps even more disturbing was their chosen method for the climb, a highly frowned upon technique know as the "one push" method of climbing.  In this manner, the two carried all their gear with them instead of establishing caches along the route. They also limited their supplies to a bare minimum to reduce weight, and planned to go up and down quickly.  Hmmmm…something just does not sound good about this, and as the film quickly reveals, it was not a quick up and down trip. 

The climb, ironically, seemed to be the easiest part of the dangerous mission, a bold and gutsy uphill battle of rock, snow, and ice which goes on for thousands of feet.  The narration is quick to point out that the mountain face they were attempting had never been even thought of before.  Nevertheless, the two make it up safely and relatively quickly (surprisingly, they make it to the top within the film’s first few minutes).   Once on top they plan their equally quick decent down, and it is here where their luck completely goes downhill, no pun intended. 

Their climb down is accentuated by a series of nightmarish incidents.  It's not just the very physical characteristics of the mountain that was dangerous, but the other elements as well.  Snowstorms erupt without provocation and nearly blind the men with near zero visibility.  When it becomes too cold to climb they seek shelter, but cannot eat nor drink much because, according to plan, they took only very light rations and provisions.  Ironically, and despite being surrounded by snow, dehydration always eats away at the two.  Even worse is the fact that the blizzards have now created hundreds of feet of treacherous snowdrifts, which now hide dangerous crevices.  Windchills reach minus 80 degrees Celsius, which freezes any bare flesh exposed in seconds.  The most horrendous problem occurred when Joe, during his decent, loses his footing, falls, and completely shatters his leg, breaking his fibula and actually driving it right through his kneecap.  With one man down, the decent hits a major obstacle. 

Simon, being determined not to leave behind his fellow climber and friend, attempted to stay with Joe and actually manages, for a while, to lower him a few hundred feet at a time while they are tied together.  At one point, unknown to Simon, he actually lowers Joe into a disastrous precipice, which leaves Joe dangling in midair for his life.  With the blizzard, life-threatening conditions, and Joe's serious injury, and the fact that Simon was unaware of Joe’s predicament in the precipice, Simon becomes increasingly aware of the fact that he may have lost Joe for good.  He now faced a decision that most men would never, ever even want to dignify with a thought.  After an hour of struggle and fearing that his friend is left for dead. Simon cuts the rope between the two, thus severing their “lifeline.”   

If the film were not based completely on real life events, the rest of its story would have been hard to swallow.  Joe actually survives his fall from the severed rope and plummets into a deep crevice.  Unfortunately for him, there is no one else in sight and he is surrounded by endless icy walls and the prospect of probably never getting out of there alive by himself.  Dehydrated, malnourished and with a broken leg, no food and water, and with no one to assist him to get out of there, Joe’s prospects looked remarkable dim.  Yet, what happens next seems like the impossible, even for an insane man.  Despite his condition, Joe actually decides to lower himself deeper into the crevice, not knowing at all what lies below.  Yet, once down there he sees a small exit in the form or a hole in the ice wall up the crevice.  Unimaginably, he manages to climb up to the exit and makes his way back on to the mountain range, but with a decent down the range to go, plus miles or rocky terrain to travel across to get to the base camp, Joe’s journey is far, far from over. 

Amazingly, both men actually manage to get back to base camp and safety.  Before you jump up and cry foul, this should not be altogether a spoiler or sorts, since the two real men narrate the entire film.  But, like I stated earlier, this is not a film about surprising reveals about their survival.  TOUCHING THE VOID is an unforgettable experience about passion and courage, the type of blind courage and perseverance that even the strongest of men would not even be able to commit themselves to.  We see the real life Simon and Joe, filmed simply in front of plain backgrounds looking and speaking right into the camera, and this minimalist technique instantly creates intimacy with the viewer to their story.  This is intercut with the recreated footage of actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron playing the two.  This material was shot in the Alps and Peru, sometimes using stunt climbers for the more dangerous moments.  These recreated scenes are flawlessly handled and you always believe in the immediacy and starkness of them.  The fact that two actors play Simon and Joe is never distracting, because they are, in essence, usually hiding behind masks of snow and blackened frostbite.  Overall, it’s pretty effortless and seamless. 

TOUCHING THE VOID is an absolutely overwhelming experience, but it is also one of the more emotionally draining films of 2004.  I mean this as a sincere compliment.  The gorgeous cinematography of the mountain ranges is both glorious and haunting, the latter in the way that it often dwarves the humans, who often appear as mere specks in the frame when matched in the enormity of the cliffs.  More than anything, the film instilled in me an intense sense of awe and panic, something that modern thrillers don’t do in quick supply.  The outcome was preordained, but just baring witness to the inhuman toll that Joe’s journey took on him nearly moved me to tears.  He was hungry, thirsty, alone, and couldn't even walk, but he still managed to channel up enough physical and mental fortitude to make it back home.  Sometimes, I watched in disbelief that later changed into horror and pain,  feeling like I could not bare to see this poor and unfortunate man suffer anymore.  The very fact that he made it, survived, still managed to walk again after a dozen operations, write a book, and actually continue to climb mountains is completely uplifting and inspiring in its own right.  My own problems seemed completely shallow and pale in comparison.  Perhaps the most amazing revelation in the film is the fact that, in the end, Joe tells Simon that he would have cut the rope as well.

MacDonald’s film is brutal, uncompromising, honest, and as tense and scary as any film I have seen this year.  It’s not too unlike another small gem from 2004 – OPEN WATER.  That film too was about dread – the dread of being stuck in the middle of nowhere without any way to get out.  Both films work ingeniously in the sense that they are about manifesting our own inherent fears of the elements around us.  In OPEN WATER, Chris Kentis detailed the horror of being stranded in the middle of the ocean with the fear of either drowning or being eating alive by sharks.  In TOUCHING THE VOID, it’s about being stranded in the freezing cold alone without any means of transport or shelter.   Macdonald’s film is a gut-wrenching 90 minutes and only goes to prove that, sometimes, the best antagonist in a thriller is the environment itself.  Who needs CGI vampires and werewolves or faceless creatures that "we dare not speak of" when we have snow, ice, and cold winds that can freeze you in mere seconds? 

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