Forces of nature make for excellent movie villains. Twisters, storms at sea, icebergs, earthquakes, wild rivers full of snakes, volcanoes—they’re all big, bad, easily recognizable bullies, mainly because, by definition, they never pick on anyone their own size. They always assault poor humans who must fight back with ingenuity, nerve, and remarkable courage—frankly, it’s hard to look completely lame when you’re battling lava.
The thing is, usually, you have these forces of nature in motion. Imagine the pitch meetings for Vertical Limit, in which a mountain, the infamously formidable K2, is the monster. Picture it: the creative talents sit around the table, conjuring ways to turn this humungo chunk of rock and ice into a mobile and menacing entity. There will be avalanches, of course, and slippery slopes and bitter winds, alongside bouts of freezing cold, but honestly, how do you make the mountain actually pose a threat to people, who by rights should just stay off it? The easy and obvious answer—it’s not the mountain per se that’s the heavy, but rather, the selfish and capitalistically scrounging humans who dare to scale its mighty heights. These arrogant, small-minded men—and they will be men—will be the bad guys, and the mountain will provide occasion and means for their mischief. And voila! You have the premise of Vertical Limit.
Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn, Izabella Scorupco, Temuera Morrison, Nicholas Lea, Alexander Siddig
Written by Robert King III, the movie really has very little to say about mountain climbing or mountainside survival. It’s more focused on mountain silliness, as for instance, in that shot in the trailer, where Chris O’Donnell runs full speed, then leaps across a crevice, catches his picks—two-fisted!—in the icy cliff face on the other side and miraculously climbs to the top of that cliff. It’s a staggering bit of preposterousness, but it looks splendid. If Tom Cruise can hang by his well-muscled fingertips off some mountain face while vacationing before the action of Mission Impossible 2 even begins, well then, Chris O’Donnell can damn well leap over an abyss and live to tell about it.
As Peter Garrett, O’Donnell gives one of his more sincere-seeming performances to date (and that’s saying a lot—he a most sincere-seeming actor). Peter begins the movie stuck with an absolutely awful choice. While climbing a mountain with his nice guy dad (Stuart Wilson) and sister Annie (Robin Tunney), something goes wrong and they’re all three hanging off the mountain by one rope, which is by the second pulling out of the chink on the rock where Annie has stuck it. Poor Peter is in the middle, and he does what dad tells him to do—he cuts his father loose, sending him to his death and saving himself and his sister. This nasty start is misleading however—the moral choices in what follows are never so muddled as they are at this moment.
Cut to three years later. Annie and Peter are estranged, as she blames his lack of nerve for their dad’s death. She’s now a Sports Illustrated cover girl, a superstar climber who’s been hired to help Extremely Wealthy Guy Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) ascend K2, as a publicity stunt for the launching of his new airline. (Or something like that—truth be told, the backstory never seemed compelling enough to get straight.) Vaughan is too plainly and immediately the selfish bastard of the piece, but the fact that it’s Paxton in the role might bring on a moment or two of pleasurable pause. He’s such a good sport in every movie he’s in, that it’s always just nice to see him. But he’s also in danger of becoming the go-to guy for all these When Nature Attacks movies. Once he and his party—Annie and climbing ace Tom McLaren (The X-Files’ Krycek, Nicholas Lea)—fall into a hole in the mountain during a storm, they’re mostly standing around shivering, turning blue, baiting each other, and finally, exhibiting symptoms of fatal High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (this involves coughing up blood—very dramatic).
Meanwhile, Peter, who hasn’t climbed since That Fateful Day, is incidentally back at base camp, on a wussy-boy National Geographic photography assignment. When he learns of Annie’s predicament, Peter knows he must climb again. And he must organize a rescue party so that various unimportant cast members can die off along the way, thus dragging out this business much longer than seems fair to the rest of us watching. This party includes cantankerous mountain man Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn in a long, gray wig, looking craggier than ever); Hareem (played by Deep Space Nine‘s Alexander Siddig), whose Muslim-ness is simplistically marked by the fact that he makes time to pray while on his rather urgent trek; vavoomy Monique (Izabella Scorupco), an amateur climber whose primary function appears to be granting Peter a way to look not excessively attached to his sister; and two Australian-accented, dope-smoking brothers, Malcolm Bench (Ben Mendelsohn) and Cyril (Steve Le Marquand). It could be that these last two are supposed to provide comic relief, but they’re such dunderheads that mostly they look to be mountain fodder, i.e., deadmeat.
Not being fodder soon proves to be a harder task than it first appears, mainly because the rescue party decides to drag along a few canisters of nitro-glycerine so they can blast their way into the hole where Annie and company have fallen. The fact that not a one of them knows anything about handling nitro only adds to the film’s silliness, though I imagine it’s supposed to increase tension. For instance, at one point, the climbers discover that nitro reacts badly to sunlight, leading to some spectacular explosion-avalanches and a series of quickly forgotten deaths.
In fact, these deaths help to situate Vertical Limit somewhere between standard-issue malicious natural forces movies (featuring either an alarmingly massive death toll or the alarmingly sudden demise of beloved protagonists), and standard-issue stalker movies, which kill off secondary characters one by one, and which invest less in audience surprise than anticipation and tension. Vertical Limit features nothing alarming and no beloved protagonists (Tunney is a fine actor reduced here to blue-lipped quivering and Scott Glenn just looks generally mortified, looking craggier and meaner as the minutes tick away), though it does eventually look like most everyone is potentially expendable—save for Peter and Annie, of course. The worst thing is that you don’t care. Unlike most hybrid form films, however, Vertical Limit doesn’t have much new to say about either of its source genres. Rather, it patches some pieces together, shows off some splendid snowy vistas, then cuts its own rope. But not soon enough.