If you’ve seen A Perfect Storm, Cliffhanger or any of the other man-against-the-elements thrillers, you’ve probably already seen Vertical Limit. Martin Campbell’s predictable entry in the disaster genre follows the timeworn formula that pits egomaniacal fools against nature. The resulting disasters could have been averted with common sense, and the suffering that inevitably follows is strictly self-induced, so it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the characters.
There’s little to recommend Campbell’s film apart from the stunning scenery (including an opening sequence filmed in Southern Utah). But if that’s what you’re after, you’re better off buying a copy of National Geographic.
Vertical Limit unrolls according to formulaic schedule, after a nerve-wracking beginning that shows what happens to unwary rock climbers. The opening, which is the most intense part of the film, signals that you’re in for a series of adrenaline rushes, though first you’ll have to suffer through attempts to string a plot around the high-octane thrills.
You’ve got the Garrett Family Climbers, doing their piton magic on the sheer red rock cliffs of Southern Utah. When two climbers tumble to their deaths and the Garretts are left hanging, Papa Garrett makes the noble sacrifice and insists his kids cut him loose to save themselves because the rock won’t hold all three. Warning, warning: Major guilt will come into play later in this thin-as-ice plot.
Jump ahead three years. Peter Garrett (Chris O’Donnell) is a National Geographic photographer on assignment at a K2 base camp in the Himalayas. Understandably, he has given up climbing since cutting dad loose. Who should he run into at base camp but his estranged sister Annie (Robin Tunney), who still blames him for their father’s death. She hasn’t lost her climbing nerve. In fact, her exploits have landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the world’s fastest female climber.
Annie has signed on to a foolhardy expedition with callow billionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton as another bad guy in the snow), who has come up with the ultimate marketing scheme. He’ll take a group up K2 so they can wave from the summit as his newly launched airline flies overhead. With motives like those, it’s not surprising that he’ll risk the lives of everyone involved just to pull off an ill-timed publicity stunt. One guess who the evil villain is—you know, the guy you’d never want to be stranded with on some icy peak if you had limited supplies.
The expedition is quickly reduced to a party of three: Annie the Ascent Queen, Evil Rich Man, and Expert Climber, who tried to tell them to turn back but was shamed into forging ahead. The three are trapped on a precarious shelf in a crevice that is then covered by an avalanche. They have 36 hours before fatal edema sets in, and they become K2 mortality statistics.
Cut back to base camp. Brother Peter, backed by overblown dialogue, convinces a rescue team to form. He’ll climb again to save his sister and atone for killing his father. Enter the supporting cast: two Australian brothers who like to party and say things like “bloody wanker.” They get the only clever line in the entire movie: “100,000 sperm and you were the fastest swimmer?” Then there’s the wizened old climber who wanders the mountain looking for the wife who died on it. He stops being a recluse to lead the rescue mission. Oh yes, and toss into the mix a little sex appeal in the form of a beautiful French Canadian medic whose LancÃ´me-perfect looks prevail even at the vertical limit.
Their laughable plan is to strap tanks of nitroglycerine onto their backs and head up them thar hills to rescue the three injured fools. Any sudden movement or the heat of the sun will trigger an explosion that will set off untold avalanches, but this is an action movie in which common sense disappears faster than yesterday’s sunshine.
Peter wants to save his sister, but what motivates the others? Can you say, a half-million dollars promised by the Rich Man’s agent? So off they go into thin air with nitroglycerine knapsacks on their backs. This insipid plot is punctuated by a series of expected, though nerve-wracking disasters: explosions, avalanches, people dangling from helicopters, hanging by their fingers from sheer ice walls and anything else you can imagine. Those who survive miraculously go from perilous conditions to safety thanks to convenient edits that avoid showing how they got out of their impossible predicaments.
There’s not much mystery here. You know most of them will die on cue, and only a chosen few will survive this suicide mission. But if you’re still willing to see Campbell’s film, I’m not going to ruin that bit of suspense for you.
You certainly won’t want to see this for the dialogue, the can-you-believe-this plot, or the wooden acting, all of which were so dreadfully bad that the young woman sitting next to me couldn’t stop laughing.
“People die up there,” the wizened old man says. They certainly do. They certainly do.
Vertical Limit (PG-13) HH Directed by Martin Campbell. Starring Chris O’Donnell, Bill Paxton and Robin Tunney.