Though Judge Patrick Naugle may have a storied...err, sack for holding nuts, he proves with this review that he's just a big wuss at heart. Please lend him a muffin.
Based on a true story.
The story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates is one that has become legend among mountain climbers worldwide. In 1985 the two men decided to attempt the unconquered Siula Grande, a 21,000 foot mountain that sports whipping winds, gargantuan snow drifts, and what appears to be (at least to this girly-man viewer) instantaneous death. The duo is able to ascend the mountain to the peak, but meet with tragedy during their treacherous descent. Joe makes a near-fatal error when he steps on a snow bank and plummets to the ground below, breaking his leg on the way down. Simon attempts to help his friend by lowering him down on a rope. When Joe once again falls off the edge during the rescue attempt, Simon is left holding his dangling partner with one of two choices: cut the rope and try to climb back to safety or fall to his death with Joe. Simon opts for the first choice, cutting his friend free to fall to his death. But Joe does not die—instead he lands inside of an ice cavern, his leg broken and spirit shattered but very much alive. What will follow is a grueling test of survival that will push both Joe and Simon to the limits of human endurance…and leave them alive to tell their tale.
This is one of those movies that you watch with your mouth wide open. You can hardly believe that all of the facts happened, and yet here are the two men who lived the tale, telling you directly of the horrors they were forced to face. I spoil nothing in telling you that both Joe Simpson and Simon Yates lived through their ordeal—both men are on camera for approximately half of the movie telling their tale.
I'm not, by definition, what you'd call an "rugged outdoorsman." I love camping, but only if by camping you mean "continental breakfast." And by "continental breakfast," I mean "Holiday Inn." And by "Holiday Inn," I mean "downtown Chicago." In other words, I'm not a big fan of being one with nature—I'd really rather be one with nature from afar, say a large air-conditioned room with a king size bed and cable TV. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are not that kind of guy. They love the idea of being uncomfortable twenty thousand feet above sea level eating only granola power bars and drinking water melted from a wall of sheet ice.
Touching the Void touches upon raw human emotions—I felt a deep sadness while watching the film. While Joe is stuck inside of the ice cavern, he slowly comes to grips with the idea that what surrounds him will in all probability be his coffin. It's a harrowing scene to sit through, one that does not go down easily for either the viewer or the character. Touching the Void is filled with these moments, each one just a little worse than the last.
At the heart of the film is a question that has plagued Simon for years: Was it right for him to cut the rope on Joe? While many in the mountain climbing community have bitterly chastised his decision, the irony is that Joe—that man who Simon dropped off the ledge—agrees with his partner's decision. It's a weighty issue with no clear answer, even though the choice was a seemingly obvious one.
The style in which the story of Touching the Void is told is exceptional. To have the men who lived the story recite their versions straightforward to the camera thrusts the narrative into a new level of reality. Each man's story is emotional and, depending on when they're talking, sometimes surprisingly emotionless. The actors portraying Simon (Brendan Mackey) and Joe (Nicholas Aaron)—the real men inexplicably didn't want to relive their ordeal—do a good job of conveying what it must have been like to be stuck in each man's shoes. Their roles don't require much in the way of dialogue (little is spoken from either man, except for grunts and howls), but what is needed is performed in a more than adequate manner.
Touching the Void is one of the most powerful and interactive documentaries I've ever seen. The film doesn't just throw in a batch of actors to replay everything—you're actually hearing the tale from the lads who lived it. Director Kevin Macdonald (Being Mick) has crafted a tale of horror, humanity, and, in the end, human survival. But it still doesn't make me want to go backpacking in the Andes.
Touching the Void was shot on 35mm with the interview scenes shot on what appears to be digital video. Overall I am very happy with how nice this transfer looks. MGM has made sure that the colors and black levels are all solidly represented without any major defects in the image. A few scenes appear slightly grainer than others, though this almost adds to the documentary feel of the film. While the interview segments aren't quite as sharp as the filmed dramatic footage, generally speaking viewers will be happy with how this transfer turned out.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English. Overall this is a fine sounding 5.1 mix, though it's nothing to get too excited about. The surprising thing about this mix is that it tends to feel slightly front heavy—while there are a few moments where directional effects are evident, this isn't an overly aggressive sound mix. The dialogue, music, and effects are all well recorded and heard. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
MGM has included a few decent extra features on this disc, most notably the featurette "What Happened Next," which gives viewers insight into what happened after Joe and Simon were discovered at their base camp. "Return to Siula Grande" features Joe and Simon returning to the mountain, but growing increasingly irritable and less chatty as the feature goes on. Both men chose not to have anything to do with the production of Touching the Void after their trip to Siula Grande ended. The 22-minute "The Making of Touching the Void" offers a video diary like look at the making of the shoot. It seems that it was a slightly uneasy alliance with Yates and Simpson—they never seem especially thrilled to be working on the film. Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer for the film.
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