Blu-ray, DVD; 2017; PG for perilous sports action, some injury images and brief smoking; streaming via Amazon Prime, Netflix, iTunes, YouTube
Best extra: “The Making of ‘Mountain’”
SETTLE down in front of the biggest screen you have. “Mountain,” from co-writer/director Jennifer Peedom and co-writer/mountaineer Robert Macfarlane, is best suited for an evening at home with a glass of wine – or the best craft beer. It’s an experience in environmental beauty, extreme sports and music.
It’s difficult to compare it to other documentaries. The film blends gorgeous, razor sharp footage and brilliant music performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with narration by Willem Dafoe to explore nature's most celebrated peaks and those who love them.
Peedom, the writer/director of the BAFTA nominated “Sherpa,” got a call from the ACO in 2013 about collaborating on “Mountain.” Macfarlane was already on board; his book, “Mountains of the Mind” would be used for narrative passages. Ultimately, over 2,000 hours of footage was shot in 15 countries and on every continent – the Himalayas, Australia, Alaska, Utah, Alaska, Norway, Austria, South America, Japan, Antarctica, New Zealand – to complete the 74 minute film. The picture is on a level that exceeds IMAX; it’s not a 4K release, but it’s hard to imagine “Mountain” looking any better.
Dizzying, vertical heights – and those who play on them skiing, snowboards and flying over in wing suits – are contrasted with the unrivaled beauty of untouched snowscapes, cliffs and valleys. Black lava swells and flows from volcanoes, revealing flashes of neon-red heat. Giant pillars of sandstone make the base for a lone walker, whose tightrope strings between them. The rope and rider sway in heat drafts. An opening shot has Macfarlane in t-shirt and tennis shoes climbing up a sheer, flat cliff. Hand- and foot-holds are no more than surface cracks. “Mountain’s” sense of height and danger is very real. The viewer’s sense of palm-sweating vertigo is real, too.
“At height, you can be taken right to the brink. For you never feel so alive knowing that at any minute you could die.” Willem Dafoe, narrator
“There’s a real diversity of opinion and judgement” regarding those who play on the mountains, Peedom says in “The Making of ‘Mountain’” featurette. “On the one hand, people are saying, ‘What maniacs! These people are idiots.’ And yet, to the people doing it, that’s normal and a beautiful form of creative self-expression.”
There’s no question to which side she leans.
Outside of Everest, locations are rarely identified. Principal Cinematographer and climber Renan Ozturk has been in love with mountains since he was a child. His mother, a musician and climber, inspired him. Ozturk was able to supply archival footage to mix with the new photography. A combination of digital cameras and GoPros were used to capture footage.
“GoPro cameras have totally revolutionized … cinematography,” Peedom says, citing some of her favorite shots. “We used GoPros filming ‘Sherpa.’ We used them all through [‘Mountain’], all of the windsurfing material. It takes you to a world we’ve never been able to go to before … It has totally changed the game.”
Drones were another gamechanger, although they couldn’t be used in the Himalayas. Footage there was captured by helicopter.
“Mountain’s” 1080p transfer in 2.39:1 aspect ratio may be the best looking Blu-ray release this year. Color is vibrant and bold from perfect blue skies and glistening snow to black, star-studded night skies. Detail is so in-your-face it almost hurts. We get a glimpse of real pain with a close-up of torn, bleeding fingers and other accidents when people fall, crash, and are spirited away by avalanche like so much loose change. Meanwhile, footsteps, bike trails, ropes, spikes, clothing and tents have dimension and clarity, continually placing viewers in the heart of the action.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is completely immersive. There’s little dialogue other than Dafoe’s narration, but it comes through clearly. Strong ambient sound encircles the room with natural environmental sound.
Designed as a visual and symphonic odyssey, ACO Artistic Director and composer Richard Tognetti ised classical music with his original score to showcase “Mountain’s” extreme sports and natural sequences. Vivaldi's bold violin solos emphasize risk and danger. A slower paced Beethoven showcases the grand peaks and valleys. Twentieth century composer Arvo Pärt’s solid bass resonates against stark images. This is a thrilling soundtrack. The AOC performed live during the film’s debut in Australia.
In addition to “The Making of ‘Mountain,’” with interviews from Peedom and her companion filmmakers, there’s a Q&A with Peedom, and a “Q&A with Writer Robert Macfarlane and Mountaineer Matthew Dieumegard-Thornton.” All are packed with information and personal anecdotes.
It was only 300 years ago that climbing mountains for fun was considered crazy. “Mountain” points out how increasing populations drove us to seek more isolated space and new challenges. Philosophy, music and images help us appreciate their mysteries. Visitors may scurry around the slopes like ants, but the magic remains long after they leave.
— Kay Reynolds