Touching the Void Reviews
It takes a while for this film to get interesting -- about forty-five minutes. And once it does, it's a decent survival story along the lines of 127 Hours.
However, I found the reenactments to be trite because they didn't add much to the story the interviewees told, and the story the interviewees told isn't unique in their language or revelation about their characters. I guess what I'm saying is that I wish the film had found a middle ground in which the reenactments could show, not tell, and the interviews could teach us more about who these people really are and what it takes to survive such an ordeal. The one exception to this is Joe's line: "You gotta keep making decisions, even if they're wrong decisions, you know. If you don't make decisions, you're stuffed."
Overall, as survival stories go, Touching the Void is good but not great.
The true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.
The simplest of words can sometimes convey far more than the most elaborate action scenes. This runs counter to the whole 'a picture is worth a thousand words', yet is nonetheless true. This film is a docudrama about two young British mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who in 1985 decided to become the first men to ever scale a treacherous Andean peak in Peru called Siula Grande. They left for their task with a third climber who was to wait at their base camp- Richard Hawking.
The film documents the weeklong adventure Joe and Simon had. The first three days were rather uneventful, and the duo reached the summit. It was on the way down that trouble hit. Freak storms were the first augur of bad things to come. Then Joe broke his leg and Simon was left to innovate a technique to lower his partner down the mountainside in 150 foot increments. Then, a second accident befell the duo. In a blizzard, Simon lowered Joe over an overhang that hung over a massive crevasse. When Joe could not signal what had occurred Simon was left in the precarious position of being unable to lift his partner back, and slowly being dragged down the face himself. After a few hours with no signal from Joe, Simon made a fateful decision to cut the rope to Joe, assuming he had died and was a dead weight, lest he face sure death as well.
Joe fell into the crevasse, where he dangled for hours. The next morning, a shaken Simon looked in vain, and assumed his partner had died. Simon made it back to the base camp, nearly dead from frostbite, and needed a few days to recover physically and emotionally with Richard. Joe, meanwhile, after much frustration, lowered himself into the crevasse and made his way out, then spent several days painfully eking his way down the mountain with an improvised splint, over glaciers and rock fields. The last night that Simon and Richard were at camp they heard Joe's cries and were shocked that he survived, this is a terrific film as documentary and adventure. A viewer can understand why these adventurers do what they do, as well as recoil from it. Watching Joe Simpson narrate his tale you can see him do both at once, sometimes. It's in those fleeting moments that the viewer gets why this film was.
The dilema in this true life story of course presents at the point of 'Would you have cut the rope?' Truth be told, I guess none of us know that for sure, but what I was impressed with was Simon's honesty in sharing his true thoughts of that time.
A truly incredible tale and the special features are certainly worth a look.
Touching the Void recreates the extraordinary story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two British mountaineers who attempted to be the first to climb the southern face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Having successfully reached the summit, tragedy struck on their descent when Simpson fell and broke his leg. Yates attempted to lower his friend down the mountain, but bad weather and increasingly desperate circumstances led him to cut the rope holding his friend. After surviving a fall into a deep crevasse, Simpson was able to climb and crawl his way down to the base camp despite having a badly broken leg and not eating for several days.
Under normal circumstances, you would now have every right to have a go at me for spoiling the plot. But what makes Touching the Void so interesting, and remarkable as a piece of filmmaking, is that it is able to keep you in nerve-shredding suspense about the predicament of these two men even though the outcome is already known. The film makes this very clear by having both men appear in person in the opening shots (although in separate interviews, for reasons that will become clear from watching).
Unlike most films, where too much prior knowledge can cause prejudicial judgement, Touching the Void is not affected by whatever background research you would care to undertake. You could know the story and the book on which it is based inside out, and you still wouldn't be able to stop yourself sitting open-mouthed, wondering how the hell both of these brave men are still alive.
In terms of its themes and ideas, the film is on its most general level about the ability of people - or at least certain kinds of people - to do the seemingly impossible under an appalling set of conditions with all the odds staked against them. Every time you think the characters have reached their limit, and that they cannot possibly even hope of surviving, they quickly go beyond said limits without a second's hesitation. Rather than begging them to just stop and let death take its course, we are in awe that they even had the idea to try, let alone by the reality that both survived.
Like many extraordinary figures in whatever discipline, the relationships we build with Simon and Joe are a mix of distant admiration at what they did and endearment at how easily they can describe or relate their experiences. The more time we spend in their company, the more convinced we become that, under the same circumstances, we could not have done a tenth what they managed to do. This sense of distance, which is present in a lot of war documentaries, almost makes us feel inadequate and unworthy to be in their company.
Fortunately enough, both Joe Simpson and Simon Yates turn out to be fascinating and approachable characters, who take a very straightforward, down-to-earth approach to both the incident and life in general. Simon is the more animated of the two, at least in terms of his facial expressions: his soft Yorkshire accent and darting eyes make him resemble a younger, more athletic Nick Park. Joe, on the other hand, is very considered, with very little movement in his upper body and a more lackadaisical way of talking. Macdonald shoots their interviews in fixed close-ups, so that every facial tic and change in vocal pitch becomes magnified, helping our insight to grow.
Accompanying the interviews we have reconstructions of both the climb and Joe's miraculous descent down the mountain. In many TV documentaries, this is normally the point where things get silly, as an assortment of actors with varying degrees of hair and make-up sit around explaining the plot in funny accents. But Touching the Void is deeply cinematic, and the actors involved in these reconstructions make the experience very real. The pain and anguish is so believable that you can't help but wonder what Macdonald must have put them through on the set (if it can be called a set) to get them to that point of intense emotion.
These reconstructions have a second role, namely in demonstrating how well-directed the film is. Macdonald contrasts the undeniable beauty of the mountain ranges and Andean lakes with the cold, dark, nightmarish reality of the crevasse into which Joe falls. His choice of camera angles is superb, ranging from wide helicopter shots of the actors on the summit to extreme, shaky-camera close-ups in the snowstorm.
This sense of professionalism makes the harsher moments of Touching the Void all the more wince-inducing. The scenes of Joe hopping his way down a glacier, screaming in pain every time his bad leg brushes against a rock, cause you to crumple up and almost watch through your hands. But even the non-physical elements of the film make it almost unbearable (in a good way). Because your proximity to the actors is so close, you are forced to ask yourself the very same questions. Would I have cut the rope? Would I have waited longer at the base camp? Would I have even tried to make it out of the crevasse?
There is a natural comparison between Touching the Void and 127 Hours, since both films deal with characters in extremis who are forced to make potentially life-threatening decisions. And in terms of our relationship with the characters, there is a part of us which continues to believe all through the film that both the climbers and Aron Ralston are completely reckless in what they are doing. But whether because of the presence of the real-life men on screen or the performances of the actors retracing their steps, it is much easier to forgive this trait in Simon and Joe, making them more readily likeable.
The one real weakness of Touching the Void, however, is something which is closely tied to the work of Danny Boyle. There is an interesting counterpoint in the film between the human and the spiritual; Joe may be a declared atheist, but he still speaks of "malignant forces" on the mountain - another reading of 'void' in the title. But when the film attempts to depict his spiritual frame of mind, it gets a little bogged down. Macdonald is not as adept as Boyle in interweaving the fantastical or supernatural into the grim and realistic, and the use of timelapse on the glacier looks like a lazy riff on the boulders sequence in Sorcerer, William Friedkin's much-maligned remake of The Wages of Fear.
In spite of this minor shortcoming, however, Touching the Void is a riveting docudrama and a very fine filmmaking achievement. From a narrative point of view it achieves the rare feat of creating genuine tension and suspense when the outcome is clearly known to the audience. The fact that it shows its hand so early in this respect is a sign of great confidence in both the story and its emotional impact. It is a gripping work from every conceivable angle, and while not the most relaxing experience, it deserves to be seen.
The sound was so boomingly emphatic, I thought my mind was gonna break right there. I cautiously glanced around the room of co-workers. Did anybody else hear that same mindblast? They all seemed oblivious; their fingers too busy tap dancing. After another short pause to gather myself, I reluctantly proceeded with my chewing. The almonds. The [i]almonds![/i] They'd been booby-trapped! That thing detonated with fleshy almond shrapnel ricocheting off the inside of my cheeks! I was in shock. How could a kind, loving nut be turned into a war machine?? Who could be so heartless? Luckily, my mouth was prepared to handle such a blast. But if somebody wasn't careful, well...I'm not sure what would happen, but I imagine it's gotta be something pretty bad. I thought about warning my co-workers about other bags of potentially explosive trail mix in the break room, but my paranoia silenced my virtuous instincts. After all, it could've been any one of [i]them[/i] who did the booby-trapping. Well, as far as I'm concerned (which is pretty far), they've trapped their last booby! I'll discover the Lex Luthor or Janet Reno behind this! Or guess who it is. But boy will they ever pay! I'll uh...make the perfectly charming bologna from their sandwich disintegrate when it touches bread or something. Or something! Involving food. And pain.
Ah pain. I mean, food. The word is beautifully simple. Food. It's even kinda comical, especially if you say it with a funny voice or with a couple of extra o's, or both. Food. [i]Fooood[/i]. The diameter of flavor potential that food can have is extraordinary. But, when accompanied with smell and texture and visual appeal, food is lofted to new dimensions of rapturous omnivorous necessities. Er, I have no idea what I'm saying. Food. [i]Fooood[/i]. It invades our thoughts so frequently. Food. Food. Food.Food.Food.Food. It even invades our capacity for proper punctuationfoodfoodfoodfood foodfoodfoodfoodfoodandselfdisciplinefoodfoodfoodfoodandallcontrolwhatsoeverfood foodfoodfoodand...foodfoodfoodfoodfood. Food.
Kitchen now go bye food. *leaves trail of drool*
When I heard that this was a documentary with "dramatic reenactments," I immediately thought, "Oh man, this is gonna be corny." Not at all. Some of the most amazing, remarkable nature thrills I've ever seen. This, and "127 Hours" would make a superb double feature. They are both unbelievable true stories.