Stars on Ice

Seven years after Cliffhanger, Hollywood takes another crack at the mountaineering action genre

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THOUGH CHRIS O'Donnell and Bill Paxton supply star power to Columbia Pictures' The Vertical Limit, an $85 million action-adventure pic due in theaters December 8, it's already evident who will be the movie's real scene-stealer: gravity. Not many other motion pictures—IMAX films included—can be counted on to yo-yo your stomach the way shots in this movie promise to.

The plot: After ignoring storm warnings, a K2 climbing team finds itself trapped in a crevasse—and the estranged sibling of the party's leader must launch a dicey mission to save them. The camera work may not rescue the picture from a string of preposterous twists, but it will likely set a precedent as the first Hollywood blockbuster best viewed after a dose of Dramamine.

"We wanted to take cinema audiences for a ride," says director Martin Campbell, whose previous credits include GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro. "And there were certain places where we simply couldn't be true to life. The breathing at that altitude is so labored. Or the stepping, each actor chomping through the snow as they really would—that would take forever. So we said, 'To hell with that, we've got to speed that up.'"

Slow is not a word often associated with Campbell's filmmaking. His style might well be called cinema velocité. No sooner has the film begun than a climbing accident finds five climbers in Utah's Monument Valley all falling at once. Think of the rock-climbing opener in M:I-2—only this time Tom Cruise butters off his hold and takes a few extras with him.

Campbell, who suffers from vertigo, relied on director of photography David Tattersal (Phantom Menace) and visual effects whiz Kent Houston (12 Monkeys). They spent six months shooting on location in the Southern Alps of Campbell's native New Zealand. Then, to simulate the death-zone climate for blue-screen work, crews built a 45-foot climbing wall inside a refrigerated soundstage in Queenstown. "Vertigo is so 3-D," notes Houston, "and we had to express it in 2-D. To get the right effect, you have to have a point of reference, for scale—or motion. Fortunately, Martin and David both like a very mobile camera so we were able to build on that." The filmmakers frequently traded a dolly-tracked camera for a freely held one, and Houston's team worked with software to link all the frantic camera movements so they would blur together to create seamless, dizzying sequences.

Houston's favorites include a segment where a stuntman catapults over a 3,000-foot chasm on a cable, and a shot in which a climber slides out of control toward the abyss, catching his ax on a cornice of "ice" just in time. "We shot it on the blue screen stage... It's a Hollywood moment," Houston admits. "One of those where you say, 'Let's go for the shot, rather than the logic.' But when you see him hanging there—you just jump when that happens!" No joke.


Make it Stop
Alpinist Mark Twight sounds off on The Vertical Limit's teaser

IF THE TWO-MINUTE TRAILER is any indication, The Vertical Limit perpetuates an exasperating pattern: On movie mountains, invisible crevasses open and snap shut, snow and stones rain constantly, and hundred-year storms kill on a weekly schedule. Although they fall with alarming frequency, when climbers are "on," they are the strongest ever seen—capable of sticking a 70-foot downward dyno, or avoiding a 3,000-foot fall by sinking a single ice tool into a cornice (sixty to zero in a millisecond without separating his shoulder!). No doubt The Vertical Limit will be a thrilling ride: Cliffhanger, but without guns, stolen cash, or Stallone. And like that action flick, it's sure to nauseate those of us who know better. Still, the film's saving grace will be apparent to climbers. That it was made at all—hell, that no one was killed in the process—is a tribute to the 50 consultants (including alpinist Ed Viesturs) who trained the actors to climb, doubled for them when they couldn't, safeguarded camera crews, and managed the huge risk of 300 bumblies traipsing around in New Zealand's Southern Alps. Sadly, in spite of their constant presence, Hollywood appears to have once again turned mountaineering into a farce.

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