Meru Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Movies like Touching the Void and The Summit have conditioned viewers of mountain-climbing documentaries to expect disaster, and Meru certainly plays with those expectations, even though all three of its main subjects appear healthy and intact in talking-head interviews (and one, Jimmy Chin, is the movie’s co-director). Meru turns out to be a story of triumph, not tragedy, or at least of triumph in the face of tragedy. It starts with mountain climbers Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk in 2008, attempting to be the first to summit the razor-thin Shark’s Fin at Meru Peak in the Himalayas, with some breathtaking footage from Chin and Ozturk themselves. When they fail just dozens of meters from the top, the movie steps back, with a middle section exploring the absurd risks of climbing, including the deaths (of people around them) and injuries (to themselves) that the three climbers have experienced.
Chin and co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who’s also Chin’s wife) lose a bit of momentum during this stretch, which belabors some of its points and also holds back certain details for the sake of unnecessary suspense. Ultimately the movie is about the climbers’ achievements, regardless of the (perhaps foolhardy) risks they take in the process. When the trio reconvenes three years later to attempt to summit the Shark’s Fin once again, the movie switches back into adventure mode, and once again the visuals (including some awesome time-lapse shots) are its most impressive element. For audiences fascinated by mountain climbing, Meru is worth watching on a big screen. It doesn’t add anything new to the extreme-sports subgenre, but it does show that for the athletes who pursue them, there are always new, more impossible challenges to face.