The human obsession with mountains is a new and strange phenomenon.
“Only three centuries ago, setting out to climb a mountain would have been considered close to lunacy”. Willem Dafoe’s familiar drawl emerges alongside alpine shots and dramatic orchestral symphonies.
“Mountains were places of peril, not beauty, an upper world to be shunned, not sought out”.
Still fresh off her 2015 critically-acclaimed film documentary Sherpa, director Jennifer Peedom’s latest venture into high-altitudes paints our journey from reverence and fear, to curiosity and an extraordinary addiction to danger.
Mountain is the exploration of our deepest fascinations with conquering summits and taming the untameable.
“What is this strange force that draws us upwards?” asks Dafoe, relaying the words of Mountains of the Mind author Robert Macfarlane. “As everyday life becomes safer for some, we seek out danger elsewhere. For you never feel so alive knowing that any minute you could die.”
ENTERING THE SUBLIME
This cinematic spectacle frames both the peril and the beauty of mountains, delving into the human psyche and dissecting our unnatural hunger to reach the brink.
However, our affinity with this wild upper world hasn’t always been one of adventure.
“Once considered the home of either the holy or the hostile”, mountains long went unexplored, Dafoe explains. But as man became separate from nature, “the great peaks of the world began to exert a force on the imagination”.
Peedom introduces a montage of early video footage to demonstrate the energy and innovation that fed this mission “to replace mystery with mastery”. Pioneers traversed the unknown, mountains were mapped for the first time, cable car networks were built…
…until finally, there was just one final frontier, “the greatest mystery of them all”.
The world’s highest peak was “a place under siege”, until it was defeated by Sir Edmund Percival Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953.
Dafoe’s narration nods to this moment as the turning point, the hour in our history when mountaineering as a pursuit of adventure and escapism became possible for anyone.
THE DANGER, AND THE ALLURE
Shot across 15 different countries, Mountain condenses what was originally 2,000 hours of footage, into 73 minutes of jaw-gaping marvel and majesty—driving home the absurd scale of our planet’s peaks, and our relative insignificance in comparison.
These rocky giants may humble us, but they also inspire us. “Because the mountains we climb are not made only made of rock and ice, but also dreams and desire.”
“For most of us exist, most of the time, in environments that are humanly arranged and controlled. But mountains are wild and ungovernable. This is the source of their danger, and also the source of their allure”.
The film highlights the relentless and unforgiving nature of these savage environments, as we begin to realise the contrast between the pain and the joy adventurers experience is almost as stark as the mountains themselves.
The hard, sharp rock. The driving ice. The bone-deep cold.
The stomach-turning vertigo.
And yet, for many of us, the thrill of it all far outweighs the danger…
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Dafoe’s words roll with the progression of the film, which pays heed to our attempts to manage and domesticate mountains. Felling forests, carving out pistes, using controlled explosives to limit the risk of avalanches…
But perhaps the highlight of Mountain is the high-octane chapter which cocoons everything that’s crazy and incredible about our “modern-day mountain worship”.
Peedom chronicles our strange pursuits and “curious performances” in an action-packed 13-minute sequence. She captures adrenaline-hooked mountaineers, skiers, snowboarders, climbers, mountain bikers, skydivers and paragliders all committing extreme acts of theatre and insanity.
This is real heart-in-mouth stuff.
OUR WILD WONDER
If just for the gut-jarring experience, Mountain is worth the watch.
The film wrenches you over jagged, snow-tipped peaks, drops you down sickening precipices, and documents extreme human exploits, as Peedom synchronises panoramas with a climactic soundtrack, courtesy of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
It underscores our obsessions, the risks born from them, the ordinary man’s ache to achieve the extraordinary—and the ultimate price paid by the unlucky few.
And so our curiosity lives on.
Watch the trailer for Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain below…