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Shows like Planet Earth and Blue Planet do many things. From informing us about nature’s delicate balance to offering therapeutic and often transcendent entertainment they have become the peak of wildlife documentaries and rightly so. Mountain is no wildlife documentary but like the aforementioned shows it is a meditation on geography and the relationship humans share with our planet’s most hostile ecosystems though it lacks the subtle subjectivity of Attenborough’s acclaimed TV series.
Mountain is visually stunning as most nature documentaries are. Renan Ozturk’s cinematography is a stunning palette of textures though the colours, ranging from the pure white of the Alps to the reddish-browns of Utah’s deserts, are somewhat limited. Still, every granite handhold, icy ridge and basalt bluff is lovingly captured by a mixture of drones, GoPros and steadicam. Jennifer Peedom’s direction slots everything into its place though she ultimately fumbles the film’s overlong ending. The true scale of this cinematically gorgeous piece is illuminated by Robert McFarlane’s script which is narrated by Willem Dafoe.
Dafoe’s naturally gravelly voice matches the rough surfaces of the peaks he narrates. The veteran actor brings real weight to McFarlane’s equally worshipful and incensed script. The film recounts folkloric tales of mountains as the homes of gods and monsters and ties this to man’s desire to conquer them. From there we move from hill-walking to the quasi-colonial conquest of Everest to the extreme sports that have become synonymous with man’s arrogance in the face of nature. It is in these sections wherein snowboarders create avalanches to race, wing suit pilots fly through rocky crevasses and skiers defy the very laws of gravity that the film moves from documentary to thriller and back again. All the time the score, performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, whispers and shrieks in tandem with Ozturk’s footage.
Composed by Richard Tognetti the music soars as free-climbers scale sheer slopes. Drums plumb the depths of boiling volcanoes and ice caves as a grand piano soundtracks the footsteps of rarely seen wildlife and extended long shots of ski slopes, razor thin ridges and the hardy Tibetan Sherpas that guide the rich up the slopes of Earth’s most popular mountain. McFarlane’s script is intensely subjective, criticising these rich idiots that dare to clutter Earth’s most majestic ranges. He has open disdain for those that jump from helicopters in order to ski down the slopes of the Alps as well as those that mountain bike off of rocky spires. But he never forgets the cost and in the end these daredevils are mere humans that “are half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion.”
Ultimately the sublime nature of Earth’s highest peaks win out. Mountain came along at a bad time considering the release of Planet Earth II earlier this year but it is fascinating nonetheless. Towards the end lava flows boil into the roaring ocean and steam pours upwards. We are reminded of how we came to be here and how we will likely vanish from the face of the Earth one day. As clouds shroud Everest’s peak Dafoe narrates “They watched us arrive and they will watch us leave.” The message is clear: mountains are eternal humanity is not.