- Jul 6, 2003
Touching the Void
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 106 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English and Spanish
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1
June 15th, 2004
When the first humanoids appeared on our world, they had to battle the elements (and other carnivores) to survive. And although modern technology and centuries of knowledge enable many present day human beings to live in much greater comfort than their early ancestors, there are some who wantonly challenge Mother Nature, seeking thrills in her most extreme and foreboding environments. Touching the Void, based upon the international best-seller of the same name, offers up an example of this, in the form of two men embarking on an epic climbing adventure so amazing that it is difficult to believe it actually happened.
To adapt this story from Joe Simpson’s memoirs in a way that would both do it justice and engage viewers, filmmaker Kevin MacDonald (who made the excellent, Oscar®-winning documentary One Day in September) utilized elements of documentary and dramatization to create a genuinely moving experience that will have viewers’ nerves on edge throughout. In addition to being suspenseful, Simpson’s tale of survival is as inspirational as any you’ll hear – and evidence of the ability of human beings to cling to life in the face of the gravest situations imaginable.
The story begins in the early summer of 1985, when Joe and his climbing companion Simon Yates were brash young mountain climbers hoping to scale peaks no one had ever ascended. Their target, in this case, was the previously un-scaled western face of Siula Grande, an imposing 21,000-foot-high mountain in the Peruvian Andes. Things went smoothly at first, as the triumphant three-day journey to the summit took passed without serious incident (though not without extreme difficulty).
Disaster struck on the way down, however, when Joe fell and suffered major damage to one of his legs. Both men knew it was over, and that an injury so severe, in the place they were in, meant certain doom for Joe. Nevertheless, Simon decided to risk his own safety to stay with Joe, and attempted to lower him down the mountain a bit at a time by using two sections of climbing rope knotted together to fashion a makeshift seat. Unfortunately, a slipup left Joe dangling over the edge of a cliff, and Simon was forced to cut the rope (presumably sending Joe to his death), lest he be pulled over as well.
Unbelievably, not only did Simon make it back to camp, but the badly injured, dehydrated, and nearly incoherent Joe reached the camp a few days later, fueled purely by his survival instincts and will to live. Now I usually try to keep things spoiler-free, but since Joe and Simon both do on-screen narration for this film, and I’ve seen it billed as a survival story, I don’t think I am giving anything away. In fact, I think Kevin MacDonald wisely focused more on how Joe survives than making viewers play a guessing game about whether or not he will survive. Ultimately, the way he perseveres proves to be more than suspenseful enough.
For the reenactments of Joe and Simon’s fateful climb, actors Nicholas Aaron (Simon) and Brendan Mackey (Joe) were enlisted, and placed in the same brutal mountain environments, which both suspends disbelief and gives the film an air of authenticity. In my opinion, these dramatizations are so well done that it is hard to believe that it is not the initial expedition we are watching. On a side note, I would be remiss not to mention that “real” Joe Simpson and Simon Yates actually returned to Siula Grande, to double for the actors in the film’s wide shots!
Speaking of the Peruvian Andes, Director Kevin MacDonald uses visual imagery wonderfully in telling this story. Indeed, the gorgeous cinematography by Keith Partridge and Mike Eely provides viewers with a clear understanding of the challenge Siula Grande presents the climbers with, and then the near hopelessness that Joe is faced with as he tries to make it back to base camp.
The storytelling methods employed, and excellent pacing, take it a step further, ratcheting up the tension as Joe is struggling to survive against insurmountable odds. Frankly, although I was expecting to be shocked at what Joe Simpson went through, I was especially amazed at how suspenseful this film turned out to be, since you know the protagonist makes it out alive almost right from the start.
Plenty of films, features and documentaries alike (Alive, Vertical Limit, K2), have been made about the dangers of mountain climbing, but it is arguable that none of them are as harrowing and deadly serious as Touching the Void. Macdonald's multi-genre approach to the subject is also an effective stylistic choice, as the narration by Joe and Simon adds a sense of depth that could not have been achieved if this feature had been made as either a dramatization or a traditional documentary. The reenactments are just as important though, because it allows viewers to see the terrifying ordeal that Joe Simpson made it through with their eyes, as opposed to their imaginations. This really is a wonderful movie, and it tells Mr. Simpson’s gripping tale in a fascinating way!!!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Presented by MGM in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1), enhanced for 16x9 displays, Touching the Void’s image quality was nothing short of sublime. This movie features a lot of ice, snow, and precarious mountain landscapes, all of which look absolutely gorgeous! To be more detailed, whites are bright and clean, and the delicate bluish colorations of the ice inside the crevasse (after Joe is cut loose by Simon) exhibit even subtle gradations. Primary colors and flesh tones are also accurately drawn, without smearing or chroma noise.
Contrast and black level are excellent as well, which allows the detail in darker scenes to come through clearly, and the print used was also extremely clean, with no noticeable print damage or defects. More impressively, I did not detect the presence of digital artifacts or edge enhancement, even when inclement weather came into play. Like fog and mist, swirling snow can be difficult to encode on DVD, but there are no real problems to speak of here. Visuals played a very important role in recreating the tragedy/triumph of Joe Simpson’s adventure in Peru, and I am happy to report that Touching the Void looks amazingly film-like on DVD!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Like its image quality, the Dolby Digital (5.1) track for Touching the Void was quite impressive! Indeed, this well-balanced, active soundtrack kept me completely engaged during the reenactments of Joe and Simon’s climb, and yet details, such as the crunch of ice under their boots, and the sounds of their climbing gear, are never buried in the mix. Much of the film also features either Simon or Joe retelling their harrowing tale, via on-screen interviews or over the top of the reenactments (like an audio commentary), and their speech never sounds natural and smooth, never harsh or brittle.
Things get really busy during some of the dramatizations, as the active use of the rear channels really helps heighten the film’s tension. More specifically, the sounds of the whipping winds of the Andes, and of the bad weather that hinders the two adventurers almost makes one feel as if they are climbing with Simon and Joe. Another neat panning effect occurs when the viewer is looking directly up at Joe or Simon during the climbing reenactments, and they dislodge ice, which then falls towards the camera. In the case of this example, you will hear the ice being dislodged in the front of the soundstage and then “fall” behind you, thanks to a smooth and seamless pan. Very cool!
The .1 channel also comes into play on occasion, adding a little punch to both scenes that call for it and the score. Overall, for a “docu-drama”, I was quite impressed by this solid surround mix, which significantly enhances the experience of watching this film!
The Making of Touching the Void
This 23-minute-long “making of” featurette, which is hindered by way too many scenes from the film, features director Kevin MacDonald speaking about the project and what it was that drew him to it. Interestingly, he had very little interest in climbing before working on Touching the Void and about none after he was done with it. Instead, what he was after, was to help people understand why people put themselves through such physical and mental torture to climb mountains as dangerous as Siula Grande. MacDonald also provides some insight into the production process, such as the difficulty of the reenactments, and levels everyone involved pushed themselves to in order to make the film so gut-wrenchingly realistic.
Interviews with Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are also featured, containing candid comments about why they went back to Peru for the picture, and about the events that transpired during the last stages of Joe’s epic ordeal. All in all, this featurette is decent enough, and offers some insight into the production, but the inclusion of far too many scenes from the film detract from the experience a bit.
Return to Siula Grande
This 25-minute-long featurette, directed by Kevin MacDonald, chronicles Joe Simpson’s return to Peru, and the week long journey from Lima to the site of his climb in 1985. This featurette goes on to offer more insight into the production, and provides an honest look at the emotions that came welling up after Joe had been shooting the film for a week. I was particularly interested to learn how matter-of-fact Simon seems to be about the whole experience, and about his relationship with Simon.
What Happened Next
This very interesting 10-miunte featurette picks up where the film ends, with Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, and Richard Hawking talking about Joe’s return to camp, and the events that transpired shortly thereafter. Specifically, the three men provide some colorful comments about what Joe’s knee looked like, the arduous trip back to Lima, the frantic search for some cash that they had hidden before the fateful climb, and why Joe wrote Touching the Void.
Theatrical Trailer and Promotional Materials
The theatrical trailer for Touching the Void is included, and under the banner of “Other MGM Releases” there is:
--- Trailers for Bubba Ho-Tep, Casa de los Babys, Osama, and Barbershop 2: Back in Business
--- Cover art for Fargo: Special Edition, Leaving Las Vegas, Dark Blue, and The Thomas Crown Affair
(on a five-point scale)
Movie: :star: :star: :star: :star: 1/2
Video: :star: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Audio: :star: :star: :star: :star:1/2
Extras: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Overall: :star: :star: :star: :star: 1/2
THE LAST WORD
Few films offer such a visceral, nail-biting testament to the human spirit that is on display throughout Touching the Void. I believe this is not only because of the way the film was made, but because Kevin MacDonald called upon Joe Simpson and Simon Yates to personally relay their story. As I watch their triumph turn into tragedy, and then back into triumph again, I could almost feel their despair, and had to ask myself whether or not I could have survived similar circumstances.
For its DVD debut, I am also happy to report that MGM has bestowed Touching the Void with a lavish presentation! The visuals and audio are first rate, and the extras are not only interesting, but actually add to the story a bit. Bottom line, this is a compelling movie, and not to be missed, despite a somewhat disappointing box office results here in the United States. Highly recommended!!!