|Touching the Depths of a Man's Soul
A Review of Touching the Void
Jason D. Martin
In the 1993 catastrophe of a film, Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone scaled vertical rock walls in
freezing ice storms wearing nothing but a tank top. In the year 2000, Tom Cruise ascended a steep
desert tower without ropes or any other type of climbing gear to protect himself in Mission
Impossible 2. And who could forget Chris O'Donell as a nitroglycerin toting rescuer in that
ludicrous attempt at a climbing movie called Vertical Limit? Yes, big Hollywood movies which
include mountain climbers of any type during the last few years have done little more than to portray
ridiculous plots with equally ridiculous characters. So walking into the new independent film
Touching the Void was a little frightening. The last thing I needed to see was yet another
half-witted actor struggling to remember five word sentences in a mind-numbing action movie.
Touching the Void is anything but a predictable action film. Indeed, the movie is a
documentary or a docu-drama, instead of a conventional film and is based on the best-selling
memoir by Joe Simpson of the same title. A large percentage of American audiences hear the word
documentary and run screaming from the theatre. But this piece is different, the story and the
adventure narrative behind it make the film an utterly compelling piece of entertainment.
In 1985, British mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates made a trip to the Peruvian
Andes in order to scale the tremendously steep and as yet unclimbed west face of Siula Grande.
The pair attacked the mountain using a relatively new style of climbing at the time. They ascended
the peak employing an "alpine style." This particular method of climbing essentially indicates that the
climbers ascend the mountain in a single push. This is in direct opposition to the rather old school
"expedition style" of climbing, where ropes are strung from the bottom of the mountain to the top.
The advantage to this latter method is that if something goes wrong, climbers can easily descend the
mountain. The disadvantage to this style of climbing is that it takes a very long time to ascend to the
summit. An expedition climb might take months, whereas an alpine style climb might take days.
Unfortunately for Simpson and Yates, something did go wrong during their alpine style climb.
While descending the mountain Simpson fell and seriously broke his leg. As the men didn't have any
means of easily descending the mountain, Yates was forced to lower Simpson down a steep icy
slope a few hundred feet at a time. They managed to descend a large portion of the mountain before
a second incident occurred, an incident that has become an integral part of modern mountaineering
Without giving too much away, it's enough to know that Simpson and Yates become
seperated. We watch Simpson, broken at the bottom of a gaping crevasse, struggling to escape
and we watch Yates back in basecamp, racked with guilt and dealing with the belief that his friend is
dead. Much of the remaining film focuses on Simpson's battle to survive, while exploring the
psycological and emotional trumoil surrounding the utter belief that he is going to die.
It is perhaps this last part of the film which strikes the average non-climbing audience member
the most deeply. Existential angst runs through Simpson like blood as he lay dying in a crevasse. He
swears, he weeps, and then he decides that there is no God, that there is only the void. Tom Hanks
rotting alone on a deserted island in Castaway never made such philosophical discoveries, nor have
countless characters in countless films that were facing a lonely and horrible death. Indeed, it is this
element which raises the film beyond a simple documentary about mountain climbers and makes it
something more profound. This exploration of the void takes the film to a stage where it becomes a
universal look at what it means to be alone and dying.
Director Kevin Macdonald expertly weaves this story together, intercutting interviews of
present-day Simpson and Yates with images of the foreboding Peruvian mountain they climbed
nearly twenty years ago. Two young actor, Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron are convincingly
used to play the parts of these now middle-aged men, making the drama part of the docu-drama all
that more intense.
Macdonald has shown a great deal of growth as a filmmaker. His previous Oscar-winning
documentary, One Day in September, delved into the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympics
wherein a number of athletes were kidnapped and executed. One Day in September was spliced
together using a combination of old footage and interviews in much the same way as this current film,
but it never achieves the tightness and fluidity of Touching the Void.
Though Macdonald has put together a fantastic film, it does have a couple of shortcomings. The
movie starts with clips of both Yates and Simpson speaking about their endeavor. As a result,
before the action really starts, the audience is aware that both of the climbers survived their
encounter with nature. This particular element draws back some of the tension which could have
been created were the film shot without present day clips of Simpson and Yates speaking.
A secondary issue in the film is its length. At over a hundred minutes the movie begins to drag
toward the end. There is a point where the audience knows that Simpson will survive and so for the
sake of dramatic tension, Macdonald should have cut about ten minutes off the final scenes of the
When all is said and done, Touching the Void is a powerful and dramatic piece of cinema
which will surly go down in history as perhaps one of the best films about mountain climbing ever
made. The scripts and the action of obscenely bad climbing movies like Vertical Limit and
Cliffhanger have nothing on this movie. The reason they don't is because they are nothing more
than fantasy. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are real people who survived a real life harrowing
Indeed, they may have touched the void...
Touching the Void
Three and a Half Stars
1 Hour and 46 Minutes