When mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates climbed Peru’s 21,000 foot Siula Grande in 1985, disaster struck when Simpson broke his leg and the rope between him and his partner became a literal lifeline. After unknowingly lowering Simpson over the edge of a crevasse, Yates was forced to cut their lifeline at the risk of both of them plummeting to their deaths. Director Kevin Macdonald, who won an Oscar for 2000’s One Day in September, intercuts interview footage of Simpson and Yates with a simulation of their horrifying experience. Touching the Void is a problematic experiment but an impressive one nonetheless. Actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron star as Simpson and Yates, respectively, but their performances do not necessarily cast a disingenuous shadow over the docu-drama (at least not a compromising one), because Macdonald successfully preserves the illusion of documentary by having the actors say very little to each other. Macdonald evokes a complementary image for every horrifying recollection, and if you refuse to buy Mackey and Aaron as Simpson and Yates, there’s no mistaking the authenticity of the film’s non-human entity. Since Macdonald and his crew shot most of the film on location in the Peruvian Andes, there’s an overwhelming sense here that we’re watching the same monster that nearly killed Simpson and Yates almost 20 years ago. Mike Eley’s photography is outstanding—what with all the wind and snow dancing off its peak, the Siula Grande is not unlike a beast with white hair whose fragile network of meringues and mushrooms are the veins Simpson and Yates must tap into in order to climb its torso. If Macdonald seems uninterested in dealing with the public fallback of the mountaineers’ experience, that’s because the walking-on-eggshells existentialism that pits Siula Grande against the atheistic Simpson is the director’s afterlife of choice.
Considering the locations and weather conditions under which this docu-drama was photographed, it'd be ridiculous to complain about some of the video transfer's understandable flaws, namely the noticeable grain during the night sequences. Overall, this is a remarkable transfer-there's very little in the way of edge enhancement and the shots of the numerous mountaintops that subbed for Siula Grande are to die for. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, though a tad front-heavy, fares better. The atmospheric music and the constant cracking of ice beneath everyone's feet are likely to permanently scare people from hiking.
The "Making of Touching the Void" featurette that starts the disc's supplemental materials is good but pales in comparison to "Return to Siula Grande." The former actually takes footage from the latter, which documents Joe Simpson and Simon Yates's return to Siula Grande. MacDonald uses the occasion to record some rather humbling reaction shots and interview footage, none more telling than Yates silently reliving the shame of cutting his best friend's rope and the flack he received from the hiking community back in England. "What Happened Next" is equally enthralling, and it features Simon, Yates, and Richard Hawking talking about the journey the trio made off the mountain after Simon's dramatic return to base camp. Rounding out the disc are trailers for Touching the Void, Barbershop 2, Buba Ho-Tep, and Casa de los Babys.
A testament to human perseverance or an anti-hiking advert. You decide.