Monday, June 30, 2014

Beyond the Edge: Himalayan Heroics in 3D

The conquest of Mt. Everest is considered the final crowning achievement of the British Empire, but it was successfully completed by a New Zealander and a Nepali (or possibly Tibetan) Sherpa. It was a nearly impossible climb with early 1950s gear that was further complicated by the odd logistical error here and there. However, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were part of a generation that refused to substitute excuses for success. The story of their summiting is recounted and recreated in Leanne Pooley’s 3D documentary Beyond the Edge (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Before Hillary joined Colonel John Hunt’s 1953 expedition, the Everest statistics told a grim tale: “thirteen deaths and no summits.” Hillary, an unassuming bee-keeper was one of only two New Zealanders in Hunt’s party, but he truly looked like a mountaineer. He also had the skills and the drive to for the final push. Unlike most of his Sherpa colleagues, Tenzing Norgay also had a climber’s ambition to summit—and summit first. Like good Survivor contestants, they sized each other up, recognized their compatibilities, and formed an alliance. Soon they were a team, hustling to establish a path through the dreaded icefall to impress Hunt.

Yes, there will be setbacks and complications. One of the strangest aspects of Beyond is the way its vocabulary more often evokes horror films than National Geographic specials. There are references to the “Death Zone” immediately below the summit and the “stench of death” asserting itself even before that stage. Nevertheless, Beyond is visually awe-inspiring. The 3D adds depth, but is not absolutely necessary—the spectacle of the Himalayas does not need punching-up. For her hybrid approach, Pooley seamlessly integrated restored 16mm color footage shot by the Hunt expedition with dramatic recreations mostly filmed in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Just watching the immersive visuals will make viewers feel chilly and light-headed.

There is also plenty of expert commentary in Beyond, but Pooley eschews the traditional talking head approach, opting instead for disembodied voice-overs, sort of like Room 237, except her professionals are insightful and experienced Everest veterans rather than cracked eccentrics. The enthusiastic participation of Hillary’s mountaineering son Peter and Tenzing Norgay’s son Norbu Tenzing also adds apostolic credibility.

Mountain climbing sequences used to be where movies went to die (MST3K’s “rock climbing” riffs for Lost Continent pretty much said it all), but documentaries somehow managed to crack that nut. Like Nick Ryan’s K2 doc The Summit before it, Beyond is tight, tense, and very cinematic. Yet, instead of a tragic cautionary tale of reckless overreach, Pooley’s film celebrates courage, ambition, and sheer will power. No mere Discovery Channel special, it is much more dramatic and entertaining than you would expect. Highly recommended for sporty audiences, Beyond the Edge opens this Friday (7/4) in New York at the IFC Center.