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TOUCHING THE VOID

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron
Director:  Kevin MacDonald
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  June 15, 2004

“SIMON!!!!”

Film ****

Simply put, Touching the Void is the most harrowing true story I’ve ever seen relayed on film.  It’s a story so incredible, so suspenseful, and so filled with jaw-dropping scenarios that had it been conceived as a work of fiction it would have been dismissed far and wide as over the top and non-believable. 

But true it is, right down to the fact that the real men who lived the story, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, appear on camera to tell it.  Based on the book by Joe Simpson, the protagonists look directly at you as they reminisce and narrate, while director Kevin MacDonald re-enacts their tale with remarkable detail using a pair of actors (Mackey and Aaron respectively).  It’s said at the beginning of the film that this is one of the most talked about and famous (or infamous) stories repeated amongst mountaineers.  Now, regular feet-on-the-ground kind of folks get to share in it as well.

The real-life storytelling mixes superbly with the dramatic footage to convey a true documentary-like experience of these two mountain climbers who dared to go where no one had successfully gone before:  to the peak of the 21,000 foot Siula Grande in Peru, a snowcapped mountain with an imposing icy vertical façade.  Others had tried and failed…Joe and Simon tried and succeeded despite frequent snow storms and conditions of nearly no visibility, bitter cold, icy patches, frostbite and more.  With nothing but a rope to keep them together and grit and determination, they made it…but that was only the beginning of their adventure.

You climb UP a mountain, and eventually, you have to climb back DOWN it as well.  As the two friends started down, a mishap left Joe with a brutally shattered leg and Simon having to do the climbing for both of them.  As Joe recalls, a broken limb on a climb such as that one meant certain death, but we see for ourselves how right he might be. 

Simon cleverly ties their two 150 foot ropes together in an attempt to get his partner down the mountain ahead of him.  But weather conditions make it hard to see one another and even harder to hear, so Simon has no clue at one point that he’s lowered Joe over a steep drop.  With no way for Joe to take his weight of the rope so Simon can let go, the two men are trapped in the ultimate catch 22 predicament…until Simon’s fragile position starts to give way under the strain, leaving him with no choice…he cuts the rope.

Okay, being that we’re seeing the real two men on screen in front of us, we know ahead of time that Joe somehow survives the unthinkable, so no need for worries, right?  Wrong.  As Joe narrates the tale of what happens to him from that point on and the ordeal he has to go through to get back alive, the stomach knotting part of the story is only beginning.

This is an absolutely perfect film in terms of a depiction of a totally engrossing experience filled with natural suspense.  No tricks are needed; the director never needs to up the ante to maintain our involvement.  There are no subplots or self contained scenarios to deal with.  The drama at hand is more than enough…not even Hitchcock could have conceived of such a menacing script, and as I mentioned, even if he did, no one would have believed it.  This story would have had to have been true, or not exist at all.

As someone who’s naturally petrified of heights, I don’t mind saying that this movie fired its way through my fear neurons and hit just about every one on its way through.  I don’t know what makes guys like Joe and Simon do what they do, but I admire them while wanting to yell at them at the same time.

This is simply an unforgettable experience.  Once you’ve seen Touching the Void, you’ll never shake it loose from your system.  You may be telling your friends over and over again about it.  You may also decide that you’ll never, ever climb a mountain, but no one will fault you for it.

Video ***1/2

This is a great looking anamorphic transfer from MGM…the outdoor photography looks splendid, and even though you’d think there’s a danger of monochromic tones with all the white snow, there’s still plenty of detail level to give subtle accents to the picture.  Colors are rich and natural looking throughout, and despite a slight and probably unavoidable touch of murkiness here and there in the few darker scenes, everything renders with clarity and integrity.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is both explosive and subtle, where the quiet sounds are actually more unnerving than the big ones.  Every atmospheric tone from the winds blowing through the mountaintops to the creaking of snow ledges about to give way are captured magnificently, and mixed in a thoroughly engrossing way to keep all corners of your sound system busy and you square in the middle of the action.  The dynamic range is plenty powerful, and spoken words are clean and clear. 

Features ***

The disc contains three featurettes, and if you’re like me, once you’re done with the film, you’ll immediately want to go to “What Happened Next”.  It literally is just that, as the men continue recounting their story from where the movie leaves them.  There’s also a making-of featurette and a “Return to Siula Grande” one, plus the original trailer and some previews of other MGM titles.

Summary:

As I mentioned, if there’s a more gripping and harrowing true story ever caught on film, I haven’t seen it.  Touching the Void is a film that celebrates a real triumph of the human spirit, and after dragging its audience through the bowels of hell to get there, it’s a well deserved conclusion.  Highly recommended.