Extreme Adventure. Extreme Danger.
Based on the true-life story dramatized in Jon Krakauer's novel of the same name, Into Thin Air is an account of a tragically fated expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest. This made for TV movie has good characters and does a fine job of involving the viewer, but suffers from the typical problems of pacing for television commercials and an over-hyped sense of melodrama at times. Columbia has released the film on DVD, with a good but not great presentation.
Facts of the Case
Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth. This makes it a tempting goal for climbers from all over the world. Unfortunately, in this day of extreme adventure hobbyists, it also became a goal for non-climbers who simply are looking for a new experience that goes farther than what they've done before. Where there is money, there is a market, and some top climbers including Scott Fischer (Peter Horton) and Rob Hall (Nathaniel Parker) have set up climbs where they take some of these adventurers up the mountain. Dentists and business people alike have paid great sums of money for the experience. Jon Krakauer is a journalist who believes this is wrong, and accompanies them on the climb to write an article. But the lure of the mountain has gotten to him too, and he becomes determined to reach the top. Unfortunately getting to the top is only the beginning; too often climbers expend all their energies to reach the summit only to die on the way down. This climb will prove to be a disaster, with a storm coming up the mountain and climbers without the physical capability and training to handle the ordeal. Five will die before the storm clears, and this is their story.
Stories like this come along all the time. True stories are often noteworthy for tragic endings, as only in the movies does the hero always triumph and evil always defeated. Nature, of course, is neither good nor evil, but is a relentless master to those caught in its grip. This is such a story, and it doesn't qualify as easy, mindless entertainment. That said, it is compelling; we root for the climbers even as we know some of them won't survive.
This is also a story taken from a book, with the good and bad that entails. I read the book awhile back, so I was very familiar with the subject matter when I watched the film. A good film shouldn't require that you have read the book, and this one doesn't. Christopher McDonald plays Jon Krakauer, and provides voice-over narration to help fill in the gaps. That said, the movie only scratches the level of detail of the book, which is invariably the case. This is one of those times when it is better not to have read the book first. Watch the film, and then read the book.
The film does a good job of capturing the desperation of the situation, and glaringly shows the errors in judgment and the overconfidence of the climbers. As usual with films about mountain climbing, the scenery almost becomes a character in its own right; shots of Mt. Everest are intercut with the Austrian Alps where the film was shot, and does a fine job of keeping the sense of realism. Character development is sketchy because of the large number of climbers on the expedition, but there is enough from the main players to care about them. The film doesn't overplay its hand; it doesn't try to be a thriller like Vertical Limit or Cliffhanger. It is an interesting film in its own right.
The DVD is labeled as anamorphic video, but that is not correct. Into Thin Air is a made-for-TV movie, and is shown in full frame. The picture quality is excellent, with bold colors, hot whites (not oversaturated), black levels are good, and the detail level is sharp and defined. Few film defects show up, but there are some nicks and blemishes from the stock footage of Mt. Everest here and there. I'd have rather had the film in widescreen, which would have shown off the mountain scenery much better, but what is here is very nice. The sound is a more than serviceable Dolby 2.0 track, with clear dialogue and fine fidelity. The mix isn't especially aggressive and the surrounds are used only sparingly. Some ambiance is created with the rear channels and that is about all you can expect out of a television soundtrack. Sound effects come through nicely, such as the howling wind on the mountain or the crunch of footsteps in the snow and ice. Not exactly demo material, but worthwhile.
Extra content is sparse for Into Thin Air. Trailers for Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, both in 1.85:1 widescreen. Talent files for actors Christopher McDonald, Peter Horton, and Nat Parker complete the extra content. Inexplicably, writer Jon Krakauer doesn't get a Talent File.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite my praise for the film and disc, this is still television material, with its own pitfalls. The story reaches a dramatic moment, so it is time for a television commercial. Timing for these commercial breaks is by the numbers, which creates an inferior sense of pacing to feature films. I'd also comment that watching a true story has its own problems, such as knowing who will live or die if you're familiar with the subject material. Tragedy is something I like to take in small doses, and of course, I've had my fill of it these last couple days. Give this one some time when you're ready.
Into Thin Air is a good, but not great, telling of the story of that ill-fated expedition. The disc isn't especially inspired, but is definitely worth a rental if you didn't catch it on TV.
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