At the start of the British mountain-climbing documentary Touching the Void, we meet Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, clearly much older than they would have been during the events depicted in the movie, narrating how they felt in the past tense. The implication is clear: whatever happened to them, they survived. One might think that knowledge would ruin the movie – you often hear it leveled at fictional movie prequels – but it doesn’t. Touching the Void is so tense and riveting that you never even think about it.
In 1985 Joe and Simon, then in their early 20s, decided to climb Siula Grande, a mountain in Peru which had not previously been scaled. Early in the film, as they talk about the challenge of the mountain – as well as the challenge of climbing it alpine-style, perhaps the most dangerous method available to them – it’s hard not think, Geez, you guys are just asking for it, aren’t you? And perhaps they were. But if one is good enough to make it to the top of Siula Grande, one imagines that climbing the less dangerous mountains might not be any fun.
Joe and Simon make it to the top of Siula Grande; as of the film’s release, they were the only living humans to do so. Then Simon, with the omniscience of hindsight, informs us that 80% of all climbing accidents happen on the descent. For them, the difficult part was just beginning.
Touching the Void balances talking-head reminiscences with Joe and Simon against dramatic re-enactments of their climb using actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron. It’s the most effective method for telling this story: even if these men had the proper words to describe their ordeal during the talking-head sequences, nothing sells the experience of frostbite like looking at a man’s cold-ravaged face. That’s not to say that the re-enactments are perfect – the representation of “delirium” is a clear, awkward example of a filmmaker trying too hard – but trying to tell this story any other way would have been doomed to failure.
It’s also worth noting that this story could have been done as a completely fictional film (with the “based on a true story” title card, of course), but that Touching the Void is a much better way to go. Fictional films always need a reason for things to happen, such as one of these men reminiscing about his family back home to push him through the cold. But Touching the Void looks at a greater truth: once a person’s body is pushed to its absolute limit, everything else drops away.
The compulsion to persist that we commonly call “the will to live” might come from love or loyalty or any other person at first; but as the frostbitten skin turns black and the dehydration turns into delirium, the battle to survive turns lonely and singular. In the end Simpson and Yates can’t even be sure of each other, and it all comes down to their own bodies against the elements until every last reserve of energy is done. Fortunately for us, there was just enough left to get these men off of the mountain, or else this fine film would not exist.
Reviewed by Mark Young