Ossus Library Index Drama Movie Index


Directed by Franc Roddam (1991, Paramount Pictures)
Starring Michael Biehn, Matt Craven, Luca Bercovici, and Patricia Charbonneau

A group of mountain climbers battle the elements to reach the summit of K2.

View Count: Twice



3 stars

August 11th, 2001 on TV

    Truly enjoyable, with simple, calm heads prevailing, even though the situation is not at all under control. The movie is marred, however, by a lack of true closure.

I compare this film a lot to Vertical Limit, which was so glitzy and special-effects laden and filled with hoopla that it didn't leave room for a real story. This film is so fulfilling, so professional, that it is genius compared to that one. But this film is not without its faults, too. 

On the good side, the two best friends, Taylor and Harold, have been climbing together for ten years. Harold is not as good -he enjoys living too much to take all the risks that Taylor does. But he is still better than average. Taylor lives for the moment, in life, in love, and in work. He has no shame, will ask out any woman who comes along, and even jokes about fantasizing about his best friend's wife. Harold is much more cautious, being married with a son. But the relationship is not doing well, because he spends so much time away from home, both for work and for climbing. 

When they meet other climbers while making a practice run for another climb, it is obvious that Taylor and Harold will become part of the team. When two members of billionaire Claiborne's team refuse to let Harold tie up their tents to the others for fear of an avalanche, we know they will be dead in the morning. And sure enough, an avalanche is caused by the over-flight of a supersonic jet, Claiborne is saved by Harold's meticulousness, and the two other climbers die. 

So eventually Taylor and Harold are brought into the team to climb K2, arguably the highest (or second highest) mountain in the world, and the most dangerous. Taylor wants to ascend with such speed that they beat any bad weather, need little planning or equipment, and feel the rush of a terrific climb.

But Claiborne plays it safe. He hires porters to carry tons of equipment up to base camp, and tries to cover all the bases. The three other team members feel the same way. We can feel the stress already...

But there are hitches all the time. The porters get spooked, and refuse to go any farther, even though they are only hours from their destination. Claiborne starts to get sick, and cannot continue the climb. They plan to go back to base camp and return the next day. But four climbers stay on. There was a terrific sequence here where one of the team members wakes them in the middle of the night, and it is pitch black. There is no stray light at all. And she wants to take Claiborne down to base camp in that darkness. Madness! But without the care and lower altitude, he will not survive! These are the dilemmas that make a good movie.

The others press on in the morning, making four camps along the way, in sheltered and relatively stable places on the mountain. At the fourth camp, they receive two messages: Claiborne is dying, and will call a military helicopter to bring him down the mountain -so they must be back by then, and that two of the four climbers should go for the top as fast as they can. 

The tension grows as they debate who should go for the top and who should stay at camp four, so close, but never to touch the top of the world. It is obvious when the two original climbers in the group are chosen that they would fail, and that Taylor and Harold would have to go look for them. A whole day later, in the middle of the night, one team member comes back, separated from the other and almost dead. He dies in their arms, and they are forced to go out the next morning to search for their lost comrade. Of course, in due time they reach the top of the mountain; they rejoice but have not seen any sign of the missing man. They plant their flag, take numerous pictures, and start heading down. 

It is then a race against sudden bad weather and the arrival of the helicopter, to get back to base camp. The search for the missing climber is probably the last thing on their minds. If their radios worked at the mountaintop, why couldn't they communicate that they were still alive to base camp after the storm? They take shelter in a small cave, but have to dig their way out in the morning. Then Harold slips on some ice, taking both of them over a cliff. Taylor manages to barely hang on, but Harold's leg is broken. They never communicate back with base camp about this.  But in an emotional highlight of the movie, Harold convinces his friend to leave him, for he can't walk, and Taylor can't carry him. Reluctantly, Taylor moves on, but is about to turn back when he slips and ends up right next to the missing climber. From this dead man he takes the extra rope and other supplies he and Harold didn't take up with them. He goes back, bundles his friend up, and helps him climb down again.

I don't know what was in that shot he kept giving Harold, but the pain was entirely gone for most of the rest of the decent. Meanwhile, the military helicopter arrives to take Claiborne back down the mountain. They are convinced that the rest of the team is dead, but one of the Pakistani porter leaders convinces the pilot to go to a higher altitude to take a last look. For Harold saved the man's life at the beginning of their climb, and he owes it to him to at least look. 

And so we get the neat and tidy happy ending, where the helicopter manages to find them, when they were lost, near death, covered in snow, and lounge on a very large mountain, having missed all the safety camps on the way down. Except that it isn't a happy ending, because so many things were not addressed. We end with the two of them waving at the helicopter. We don't get to see how the mountain changed their lives.

It looks like Taylor has suddenly realized that life cannot be lived alone. He needs friends, which is why he couldn't abandon Harold, his only friend, on the mountain. We don't get to see Harold, after nearly freezing to death, reunited with his wife, who said she would move out if he went on this trip. It looked like he convinced her not to, but she had a long time to think about it after he left. We needed to see her reaction. 

I loved the music in this movie. It was low-key, highlighting what needed enhancing, keeping us interested on the long hikes across mountainous walls or ridges. The climb also looked quite realistic. It seemed like they spent less time than I would have expected, but the entire journey was not documented, which would have been a lot more silent walking. 

Finally, the characters were very realistic and professional. Obviously, they wanted to get to the top of the mountain. Certain climbers were willing to go farther than others. Everybody had opinions, but once the team leader made a decision, it was final. Even if Taylor didn't like the decision, he abided by it. That is the mark of a true climber, who knows that you can't just strike out on your own on this kind of trip. That is what really impressed me most.

The movie did have some faults, sure. There were many events which could be predicted well ahead of time, and it definitely didn't have the kind of closure many of its storylines needed. But the movie was made well, in spite of this. It kept itself low-key and professional, while telling a good story, not messing around with a bunch of hysterics, and letting rivalries go only so far before they were cut off by common sense. Definitely worth seeing, as a climbing drama, not an action thriller.

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