*Snap. Crackle. Crunch.* No, that’s not the clattering of carabiners or the sound of snow underfoot you’re imagining in the background of Touching the Void, although there’s plenty of hiking gear and fresh powder to go around. It is, in fact, the bones of the protagonist’s shattered leg, grinding together with every excruciating step, drag, and fall. This central fact makes for a rather grisly viewing experience, but, if you can get past it, Touching the Void is an altogether decent night at the movies (or on the Discovery Channel.)
One part documentary, one part voice-over, Touching the Void tells the true story of two ambitious hikers who aimed to scale Peru’s Siula Grande alpine-style (i.e. connected by ropes and with minimal supplies) in the mid-1980’s. All in all, getting up the mountain wasn’t that bad, but getting down…that was another thing entirely. Soon our dynamic duo of Type-A climbers find themselves in dark and dire straits, where every step might lead to death and survival and betrayal seem to go hand-in-hand.
I knew basically all of this going in, but where Touching the Void surprised me is that it gradually becomes less a hiking disaster movie and more the harrowing travelogue of one man’s existential ordeal. Several critics seem to find the last third of the movie, with its increasingly un-documentary-like camera tricks, to be overdone. And, while it’s hard not to think of Trainspotting (or, as my sis noted, Requiem for a Dream) when the steadicam swooning and blurry dissolves break out in spades, I still thought the movie still worked as an intriguing blend of documentary and film, true recollection and fanciful recreation. Apparently, Tom Cruise’s production house had optioned this story at some point, and I got to think this was a more interesting way of capturing the psychological dynamics of this amazing story than anything that project might’ve come up with.
All in all, Touching the Void has a few problems (perhaps most notably that the fact that the survivors are telling you the tale reduces any real question of how it’s all going to end), but it still made for one of the better survival stories I’ve seen on film recently…in fact, in a strange way, it reminded me of The Pianist. And it makes clear beyond any reason of a doubt that all the Worst-Case Scenario Handbooks in the world aren’t going to prepare you for the moment when shards of your femur begin to grind against your patella in the middle of an icestorm. After seeing this film, I think I’m going to do all my ice-climbing on the XBox, thank you very much.