I believe there must be a genetic predisposition toward finding mountain climbing fascinating. I lack that predisposition. The argument that people climb them because the mountains are there perplexes me. I have no problem with them being there — and me looking up at them. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, “Mountains are like elephants to me — I like to look at ’em, but I wouldn’t want to climb one.” Well, I did climb one once, but it wasn’t called a mountain, it was called a crag — Walla Crag, in the English Lake District, to be exact — and it didn’t require ropes (outcroppings of heather sufficed) and tents, nor frostbite, nor trenchfoot. It took a few hours and it suited me fine — for life. Bear this in mind in my assessment of the mountain-climbing documentary Meru.
Meru is a well-made film of its kind. Apart from a dose of Documentary 101 musical score and the overuse of fast-motion time-lapse shots in the film’s earlier scenes, I find no fault with the movie. It looks terrific most of the time, and I don’t suppose the occasional use of CGI to goose the imagery is out-of-bounds. The film details the efforts of three climbers — Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk — to scale Meru Peak, which is not the highest mountain, but, according to the film, is one of the most difficult to climb, owing to its final 1,500 feet of smooth, vertical granite, requiring spikes to be driven into unstable rock. It’s one of those undertakings that requires grim determination, special skills, nerves of steel — and (when looked at from the outside) possibly a streak of insanity. Hanging in a suspended tent for four days during a snowstorm is simply not most people’s idea of a good time.
Since the climbs themselves — there are two actually — only provide so much screen time (even in an 87-minute film), a great deal of the movie involves biographical details on the three climbers. This helps make the men more human, of course, but its greater power comes from the shrewd way in which information is doled out over the course of the proceedings for dramatic impact. Of course, some of it takes place between the first and second attempts at scaling the peak, so to a degree the placement is natural. The problem with all of this is that it’s not as exciting as the climbing, even when it features bits of other mountaineering episodes. It is, however, interesting.
The bigger problem lies in the fact that the final climb — despite its undeniable drama — almost feels rushed to the point of anti-climax. It’s understandable. After all, we’ve been through the earlier part of the climb already. To depict it a second time would feel redundant. But it does make the film unevenly paced. My own problem — aside from the endless and very prominent North Face product-placement — lies in the fact that from my utterly layman perspective, no matter how thrilling or grand the individual moments may be, the bulk of them could be from any number of other such movies I’ve seen. Those who are more conversant with the topic are apt to feel differently. In fact, I suspect, they will find the film excellent, while I only find it good. Rated R for language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.