No offense to any mountain climbers who may be reading this, but I just don't understand the sport. There is not enough money in the world that would make me climb up a jagged, deadly cliff and spend days (or even weeks) in the frigid cold, only to climb back down again. I certainly admire the courage of those who attempt such feats, but I'd much rather spend my vacation basking in the warm sun of the Bahamas, drinking margaritas.
So the very idea of watching 'Vertical Limit' did not sound like a particularly fun way to spend 119 minutes. A group of climbers, stranded in an avalanche, enduring vast hardships and much pain to save themselves from death? Woo-hoo -- get the popcorn ready!
Plotwise, 'Vertical Limit' is the kind of movie where you know exactly where it's headed from the opening scene. Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell) and his sister Annie (Robin Tunney) are lifelong climbers, trained by their father Royce (Stuart Wilson). But after an expedition goes horribly awry, Royce and two other climbers are killed, which creates a years-long rift between Peter and Annie. How much do you wanna bet that by the end of 'Vertical Limit,' brother and sister will once again scale the mountain, face their fears, and at last make peace with the death of dear old dad?
That's exactly what happens when two profiteers, Elliot Vaughn and Tom McLaren (Bill Paxton and Nicholas Lea) form a team to confront one of the world's tallest peaks, the K2. Another devastating accident occurs, leaving Peter and Annie to work together, alongside an eccentric, reclusive mountain man (Scott Glenn) to save the rest of the team before an avalanche wipes the entire expedition right off the mountain.
I will admit that 'Vertical Limit' is well made. Perhaps too much so. There is much discussion on this disc's included supplements about how the movie was the most realistic portrayal of mountain climbing ever seen on screen. And the extensive making-of footage certainly backs up that claim. The filmmakers spent many arduous months shooting in real locations, including what is dubbed as "one of the most dangerous mountains in the world." Such verisimilitude paid off. The film never looks anything but terrifying, and aside from only some lame green-screen work, the effect is seamless.
Yet as much as I admire the craft of the filmmakers, I simply did not "enjoy" the suspense. 'Vertical Limit' is relentless in subjecting its characters to one torturous scene after another. Though it is also an extremely silly film -- the familial melodrama is like something out of a Lifetime movie -- I still found it hard to be entertained watching nice people dangling over five hundred foot drops while screaming for their lives, or having their limbs bashed about on rocks and ice. I also wonder just how realistic some of the stunts in this film are. A quick perusal of the flick's IMDB page reveals comments made by real mountain climbers, most of whom laughed at the film's fictional excesses and outright impossibilities.
Still, I bet 'Vertical Limit' will thrill many action fans. I was certainly never bored. Director Martin Campbell ('Casino Royale,' the 'Zorro' films) wisely focuses on the imminent danger hovering over every scene like a dark cloud, and leaves no moment wanting for maximum effect. The acting is also appropriate to the material, even if none of the actors are able to truly create memorable, three-dimensional characters. But I suppose all of that is besides the point, anyway. If you have a taste for pure cinematic adrenaline (or are just a sadist), you'll find plenty to get your juices going in 'Vertical Limit.'
Somewhat rare for a big action film, 'Vertical Limit' was shot at the Academy flat 1.85:1 aspect ratio, instead of the more expansive 2.35:1. However, that's a bit of a plus in one way, as it makes for a nice tall home theater image that really fills up the screen. Sony also gives the movie the usual 1080p/MPEG-2 treatment, with a transfer that has moments that are truly breathtaking.
The pluses include a very fine source print. The material is free of any major blemishes, such as dirt and speckles. Grain is present, though really only noticeable on wide shots with lots of white -- not entirely uncommon in this movie. Colors are also excellent, with deep blues, reds and greens, which are pure and stable on both natural objects like skies, landscapes and foliage, and more the artificial hues of the bright outfits, tents, etc. But what's most glorious is how natural the image looks -- there is little in the way of overdone digital processing, so the transfer has a lush look that benefits detail and keeps fleshtones accurate.
The only problem area is consistency. There are moments of print wavering, when contrast appears to waver a bit within a shot. Detail is generally excellent, particularly on close-ups -- every whisker on Bill Paxton's beard is obvious, and at one boring moment I even started counting the freckles on Robin Tunney's face and neck. But 'Vertical Limit' suffers due to its dated rear-screen photography. The opening sequence is a good example. It has a weird, plastic look, with the actors obviously dangling on a man-made set in front of phony backgrounds. This results in different parts of a single shot looking either sharp, or slightly blurred. The lame computer-generated trickery (how laughable is the recurring motif of the flying CGI eagle that opens the movie?) doesn't help, either, adding further softness on some shots. But these imperfections aside, 'Vertical Limit' often presents terrific high-def images, so more often than not I was left impressed.
Sony delivers another uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track for 'Vertical Limit.' Given that the film is largely action, I expected the typical, blow-you-out-of-your-seat bombast from start to finish. Instead, while it does deliver many inspired moments, overall I found myself disappointed by this often front-heavy track.
Of course, we can blame that on the film's sound design. It certainly has some cool tricks up its sleeve, and there are many examples of effective surround use. During a scene early on, when the Bill Paxton character is holding an outdoor press conference that's interrupted by the arrival of helicopters, the far-off sounds of the aircraft at first can only be heard in the rears. It's a very cool, immersive effect that lasts a good twenty seconds, and exhibits a fine attention to detail. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the film suffers from a lack sustained atmosphere.
On a technical level, however, 'Vertical Limit' has few faults. The soundtrack is very well constructed, with excellent clarity across the entire frequency range. Low bass is strong and supple. Dialogue holds up very well against the intensity of the rest of the mix, and I encountered no volume balance issues. The film's score, though somewhat cheesy and uninspired, also fills up the soundfield nicely when needed.
The back of the Blu-ray box for 'Vertical Limit' looks mighty impressive -- a big row of bullet points, listing all sorts of cool features. Unfortunately, it's a bit misleading. There is really only an audio commentary and a couple of video featurettes, but they have been divided into a bunch of little pieces to make it all look more substantial than it really is. However, nothing has been excised from the standard-def DVD special edition, so at least collectors won't be missing out.
The best of the lot is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Martin Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips. Curiously, the filmmakers don't seem to have that much enthusiasm for the film. Perhaps it is Campbell's somewhat studied, dry voice, or just the fact that the commentary was recorded so soon after the film was completed that they were just tired of it. In any case, there are some gaps of silence, and most of the information is of a technical variety. The film's 119-minute runtime does not lend itself well to such endless talk of actors hanging off of cliffs, blue screen photography and the bland story. A decent enough track, but rather forgettable, too.
The main video extra is the 24-minute HBO First Look Special. This is another one of those hilarious pieces with cheesy narration, lots of bland "insight" from cast and crew, and self-aggrandizing proclamations from the filmmakers like, "To win big you have to risk big!" There is some cool behind-the-scenes footage, that if nothing else, proves to me that I won't ever be climbing the "world's most dangerous mountain" -- these people are crazy!
Last and least is "Search and Rescue Tales," a series of six short one- to five-minute making-of vignettes on different aspects of the production. Most of it involves the arduous shooting and stunt work. The material is a combination of film clips, brief on-set interviews, and storyboards. The six segments include: "Avalanche!", "Easy as Falling Off a Cliff," "Peak Performers," "The Death Zone," "Vertigo Magic" and "The Elixir of Life."
Alas, no theatrical trailer for 'Vertical Limit' is included, just a couple of promos for other Sony Blu-ray titles. All the above is also presented in 480i video only, indicating that these supplements were produced long before Blu-ray was even a gleam in Sony's eye.
'Vertical Limit' is an entertaining enough thriller. The stunts, the photography, the locations -- it's all actually quite breathtaking. However, with a forgettable story, this one is all about the home theater eye candy. On that count, this Blu-ray release delivers the goods pretty well, with a generally strong transfer and soundtrack. The extras are more slim than the packaging makes them out to be, but then perhaps 'Vertical Limit' is slight enough that it doesn't need much in that regard, anyway. This one is worth a purchase for fans, and a fun rental for mountain climbing aficionados.