Rocky Mountain High: Gorgeous documentary ultimately runs ragged
By: Matt Brunson
Superhero and science fiction films are often given a pass thanks to their robust visuals, so why not documentaries?
Filmed on all seven continents and in approximately 20 different countries, Mountain (two and a half stars out of four) is basically 75 minutes of freebasing highly addictive footage that is sure to leave viewers gasping, gaping, and wanting more. Whether it’s mountaintops peeking through the clouds or climbers peeking down at the ground waaay below, the sights captured by cinematographer Renan Ozturk are simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
As an ocular treat, Mountain is tremendous. As an aural assault, it is decidedly less so.
The narration is provided by Willem Dafoe — or, as he’s now forever known in my household, He Who Was Absurdly Cheated Out Of His Oscar For The Florida Project. Dafoe’s rugged, ragged voice is perfect for this assignment — the problem instead rests with the words he’s delivering. They’re provided by Robert Macfarlane, largely lifting from his 2003 book Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. On the printed page, they’re the sorts of missives and musings that are fun to leisurely examine, process and contemplate; when delivered out loud by another party, they often come across as a tad precious and a bit twee. Certainly, there are several fine passages in the film — I especially like when countless climbers are lining up to tackle Everest and Dafoe comments, “This isn’t climbing anymore; it’s queueing. This isn’t exploration; it’s crowd control.” But for every finely turned phrase like that, there’s another that’s cumbersome. (“What curious performances we put on with the mountains as our theater!”)
The movie’s narrative drive is functional even if the sections often feel untethered from one another. Dafoe explains how the citizens of earlier centuries would view the mountains as the forbidden domain of “dragons and divinities,” until “fascination replaced trepidation” and humankind began seeing the towering rocks as new frontiers to explore and conquer. After the expected Everest interludes, we’re then shown the exploits of the new breed of daredevils, those who risk their lives for the sake of YouTube viewers worldwide.
The thematic links are often tenuous and the narration occasionally overbearing, but these components ultimately melt away in the face of the staggering images. Perhaps akin to small children, Mountain is a film that should be seen but not necessarily heard.