Sep 28, 2015 by Nickelodeon on The Nickelodeon Blog

The rock-climbing documentary Meru inspires a lot of the same questions as a found-footage horror movie, namely, “Why are they doing this? . . . And why are they filming it?” While Mount Everest is the highest peak in the world, a literal pinnacle of achievement and a globally recognizable icon of same, the three-person team in this film climbs the less well-known Shark’s Fin on Meru Peak, also in the Himalayas. The route is called the Shark’s Fin because it looks like a shark’s fin; it looks like a shark’s fin because the rock wall has a 4,000-foot vertical drop. In comparison, Everest looks positively recumbent. Just imagine it: an Empire State Building stacked atop a Burj Khalifa, including antennae, on Hoth, in a polar vortex. Never before summited, it remains one of the hardest routes in the world.

But Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, and Jimmy Chin (who directed, which en route means pointing the camera and trying not to die—though one could argue all directors do that) anchor their weatherproof tent to a wall of ice and stone for the first time in recorded history, dangling over a white abyss, going backward seeming no easier than going forward. This is not a talking-heads, retrospective documentary: Chin pulls out his camera in between belayings, when things are safe and stable, which, with your feet planted firmly on the cinema floor, seems like an awfully relative claim. You watch clotted snow and rock break under their spiked books and fall downward and yet nowhere in particular, making no sound on impact, like a pebble dropped into a deep well. There they are, surrounded by air packed with more ice than oxygen or else crystalline and empty, framed against a pure white vision of cold heaven or the infinite Himalayas, reminding us in geographic cuneiform that “dread” meant “awe-inspiring” before it meant “terrifying.” Under the banner of human excellence, the three climb higher and higher, into more a rarefied strata, far above the other animals, with only extremophile bacteria for company. And a camera.

This puts Meru in a peculiar cinematic tradition triangulated among existential horror, environmental threat, and human triumph, settling in alongside Werner Herzog and Jon Krakauer (who is, not incidentally, interviewed here). The climbers embody the questions we ask ourselves as a society, as individuals, and as mortals. What can a human body do? What can a team of bodies do? Does it matter if there isn’t a record of it? Does it matter if there is? Am I going to die soon? Will my death be cool? Would that be worth it? It was never obvious that Anker, Chin, and Ozturk would survive their climb, even less obvious after Chin shot hours of what could have been their last days. Found-footage horror is Meru’s “there but for the grace of God.” Chin makes it easy to imagine a version of this film that opens with a title card describing how the memory card was found among skeletons hanging in a nylon ripstop tent, decades departed. Instead, we have a reified myth of having been to the mountaintop, shorn of metaphysical meaning. With sweat frozen in their pores, hoarfrost for hair, and emaciated musculature, they have brought down a document of what it would mean to go to the mountaintop in the first place.

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