Film Review: The Summit
Published: October 16, 2013
Directed by Nick Ryan
Now playing at the Charles
On Aug. 1, 2008, 11 people died within hours of each other on K2, the world’s second highest peak, on the border of Pakistan and China. We know from the beginning of The Summit that this particular expedition does not end well. The mountain presents its attempted conquerors with all manner of obstacles, including avalanches, arctic temperatures, and extreme oxygen depletion. Combining interviews with firsthand footage and reenactments, The Summit weaves together multiple versions of the story to confusing, rather than cohesive, effect.
The actual footage of the climb is arresting—the contrast between the grizzled, slightly crazed climbers and the same group during clean-shaven interviews is striking. And even when the film loses some steam, the landscape remains otherworldly beautiful. The camera reveals pristine mountains as far as the eye can see. K2, looming over them all, casts a monolithic shadow that reaches to the horizon. “The expedition can never be perfect,” one climber says. “Only the mountain stays perfect.”
The Summit’s dramatizations of the events of Aug. 1, however, noticeably break from the film’s established style and sometimes suck the energy out of a anxious moment. Also interspersed is a long monologue by one of the first men to reach the summit of K2 in 1954; it is immediately clear by the overwrought language that this is also dramatized and that the Italian climber Walter Bonatti, who died a year before the film was made, is replaced by an actor. These interludes are not only out of place, they leave one wondering what is real and what is artifice. The story needs no such false heightening of tension.
All of this is layered on top of a deeper problem with the film: the question of why. The motivation of the climbers is never explained. It’s ostensibly self-evident. Yet, as the film goes on, one wonders why they continued at all, especially after several have already died. “People must think we are crazy to go on after people have died,” says climber Cecilie Skog. “When you drive a car, you see people crash. But you keep on driving.”
The film never questions the endeavor, even as the death toll mounts, and it fails to acknowledge that what these people are doing is essentially a very dangerous and expensive hobby. The Summit misses an opportunity to ask: What is the significance of climbing a vicious mountain, one so indifferent to everything human? Are these climbers really heroes or just would-be conquerors?
> Email H. Dean Freeman