In the past decade, cameras have become smaller, more portable, and more affordable. They can easily be taken to the farthest corners of the Earth and bring back pristine images for all to see. These cameras, mounted on helmets and long poles, capture images and perspectives that normal cameramen simply cannot. This aspect has given a considerable rise to extreme sports documentaries, and in the case of Meru, the mountain climbing documentary.
Located in India, Meru sits at the headwaters of the Ganges River—immediately imbuing the mountain with spirituality—and rising 21,850 feet into the air. It is technically more difficult to climb than Mount Everest, for its summit rises out of the ice and snow as a smooth piece of rock known as the Shark Fin. As noted author John Krakauer tells the audience, “You can’t just be a good ice climber. You can’t just be good at altitude. You can’t just be a good rock climber. [Meru has] defeated so many good climbers and maybe will defeat everybody for all time. Meru isn’t Everest. On Everest, you can hire Sherpas to take most of the risks. This is a whole different kind of climbing.”
But as anyone entering the theater to see Meru might expect, there is no stretch of this Earth modern man cannot concur with determination, grit, and proper equipment. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi use Krakauer to set the stage for their three-act climb of Meru. Climbers Conrad Anker, Chin, and Renan Ozturk’s first attempt in 2008 ends unsuccessfully and almost tragically. They swear off the mountain and go off the grid, only to emerge stronger and more resilient in 2011 to tackle Meru again, this time with even bigger challenges to face.
To describe a movie as “critic-proof” is to say that no amount of positive or negative criticism will increase or decrease audience attendance. The audience will find these movies no matter what. More than comic book movies—although drawing a much smaller audience—the climbing documentary is essentially critic proof and aesthetically similar. The climbers, the difficulty of the assent, the thwarted initial attempt, the regroup, the hardships faced, the challenges overcome, and the triumph is contextualized in a larger cosmic and spiritual sense while the credits roll over an uplifting song.
What is left out is the why. Meru relies heavily on the audiences’ unspoken understanding that mountains must be climbed because they are there and not for any personal reason. But considering that one of the climbers is gravely injured in the initial attempt in scaling Meru, only then to return to the mountain without telling his girlfriend (the woman who stood next to him during his recovery) sidesteps the motivation and obsessions that drive these climbers to risk life and limb for a spectacular view.
Similarly unspoken but alluded to is how these climbers contextualize their conquest amongst the cosmos, a place where climbers seem to draw their greatest inspiration while non-climbers roll their eyes. Meru is particularly offensive in this manner as a bit of cinematic trickery situates the mountain amid the Milky Way, as if this climb were a spiritual climb, not a physical one. Maybe it is, but if none of the climbers make anything of it, what’s the point?
To watch Meru is to watch human beings conquer one of nature’s most difficult summits, but only on a surface level. The surface of the rock is photographed, as is the surface of the faces that climb it. The cameras of Meru merely bear witness to the act rather than explore the root of obsession that motivates the triumph.
Directed by: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Produced by: Jimmy Chin, Shannon Ethridge, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Starring: Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer
Music Box Films, Rated R, Running time 87 minutes, Opens August 14, 2015