“MOUNTAIN” — 3 stars — Willem Dafoe; PG (perilous sports action, some injury images and brief smoking); Broadway
You could probably justify the price of a ticket to Jennifer Peedom’s sweeping documentary “Mountain” on its visual spectacle alone. Peedom’s effort is a testament to nature’s incredible beauty and the spectacular modern technology that allows us to capture it, and even at a comparably short 74 minutes, the film's audience should come away feeling like they got its money’s worth.
Once you get past the eye candy, though, you find a curious film that is alternately inspiring, ponderous and tedious. Sometimes it even feels downright conflicted. “Mountain” is, in its simplest form, a documentary on humanity's relationship to the world’s highest places, and its story traces that relationship from a place of distant fear, to compulsive exploration, on through to commercial exploitation.
Backed by a beautiful classical soundtrack, the effort is narrated by actor Willem Defoe, whose familiar tones read a ponderous script that features quotes like, “Those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear their music,” “The mountains we climb are mountains of the mind,” and “Risk has become its own reward.”
Thoughtful prose, for sure, but a little of this goes a long way.
“Mountain” is packed with gorgeous sunlight gleaming off towering peaks, juxtaposed against the tiny people exploring them, all captured by drone videography and other modern means that cinematographer Renan Ozturk uses to bring nature’s wonders to life in a way that makes them feel new.
After early scenes place death-defying free climbers on the seemingly bare faces of towering rocks, “Mountain” goes back to archival footage to help tell the story of early climbers and explorers who set out after summits like Everest. Then Vivaldi’s “Winter” underscores a perilous montage of falls to remind us that superhuman climbers are still very human.
While the film focuses on climbing early on, eventually “Mountain” works its way into other forms of outdoor recreation: skiing, slacklining, high altitude mountain biking, BASE jumping. Here is where Peedom’s documentary seems to wrestle with the downside of human passion and advancement.
On the one hand, it criticizes the commercialization of the mountains, with swarms of skiers on slopes, the dumbing-down of modern Everest climbing expeditions that allow an “ordinary person to be briefly extraordinary,” and an adrenaline junkie culture that is driven by YouTube views and social media followers. But at the same time, it packs these sequences with the exact kind of thrilling footage that encourages this behavior.
In that sense, intentional or not, “Mountain” seems to be as much about humans — or at least human nature — as it is about the grand and majestic rock formations it personifies that crisscross the globe.
But if you don’t want to get lost in thought over the ethical or spiritual questions that tie into the nature of the thrill-seeker, anyone with even the most passive appreciation for the outdoors can still kick back and just enjoy a relentless collection of astounding visuals. At its heart, “Mountain” is 74 minutes of pure beauty.
“Mountain” is rated PG for perilous sports action, some injury images and brief smoking; running time: 74 minutes.