Most documentaries about mountaineering or other extreme sports are burdened with the awkward fact that most of the audience knows the ending before they even sit down in their seats. However, this is no excuse for these films not to be gripping, tense and downright thrilling; as evidenced by the 2003 success of Touching the Void. However, Leanne Pooley’s film documenting the first successful climb of Mt. Everest by the climbers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay fails to generate any kind of tension.
The story told by Beyond The Edge is interesting enough. Hillary and Norgay were outsiders in their climbing group, being Kiwi and Sherpa respectively. They were only given the chance to ascend to the summit after a pair of British climbers had already failed. And it goes without saying that the conquering of Everest was a massive achievement, especially back in 1953. But Pooley uses disappointingly conventional means to tell the tale. Alternating between footage shot on the expedition nigh on 50 years ago and reconstructions filmed in New Zealand, the film has a very plodding feel. It uses the voices of Hillary and other climbers on the expedition and occasionally their children to narrate the events, but especially with the climbers, it’s done in such a matter of fact tone it practically sends you to sleep. Let’s just say that while Hillary was an intrepid adventurer and fantastic climber, he’s no Morgan Freeman with a microphone.
The story unfolds ridge after ridge, climb after climb, animated map after animated map, juxtaposed with some pretty helicopter shots. The occasional segments where it details particularly risky parts of the climb don’t feel very risky at all. It doesn’t help that for the most part, the film doesn’t attempt to probe into the characters of Hillary and Norgay, or address the political climate the expedition took place in. It does have its occasional forays into deeper territory, however.
But even if it treads safe ground, the film still has plus sides. It’s shot in a gorgeous 3D, and although it must be hard to shoot any mountain range badly, the snowy peaks and sweeping faces of ice do look stunning. The reconstructions are mostly unremarkable and a little cheesy, but I can’t deny feeling a little warmth inside me at the smile Norgay gives Hillary when they reach the summit. (Oops, spoilers! Wait…)
The 1953 expedition was an incredible feat of human endurance and prowess, and undoubtedly inspired countless others to take the climb. Hillary and Norgay were certainly two very brave and talented individuals, but as a movie Beyond The Edge doesn’t give them, nor their feats, the kind of gravitas they deserve.