Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, February 21, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Free Solo (2018)

I mentioned this recently but it definitely seems to me that documentaries are becoming more popular than ever. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The modern ubiquity of Youtube, where infotainment content flourishes, have made audiences much more interested in what they call non-narrative storytelling. Internet streaming services have made feature documentaries accessible to a wider audience. It seems likely to me that people binge-watching and obsessing over “Making a Murderer” and the like online and then lining up to see docs in theaters is probably related. Yet I was definitely still surprised to see a television advertisement for “Free Solo,” which was already an Oscar front runner at the end of last year. I guess I still don't expect to see movies like this getting TV spots, though I'm pleased to see mainstream audiences becoming more open.

The film follows Alex Honnold, a “free solo” mountain climber. I didn't know what that was before seeing the film but apparently it's a type of climber who scales tall cliffs, mountains, and rocks completely without rope or safety equipment. Unsurprisingly, there's a high mortality rate even among the experienced “soloers.” Honnold has required a reputation as among the best free climbers, having conquered several famous natural wonders. His next goal is a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which has never been accomplished before. The film tracks the weeks leading up to his climb and how his obsession affects his personal life.

I couldn't get into “Free Solo” because Alex Honnold strikes me as a boring protagonist. Which is weird, right? The dude has an extremely dangerous hobby. Without any exaggeration, the film captures him risking life and limb. He's obviously smart too, as his apparent interests in philosophy and literature reveal. (Not that the movie gives any indication of that.) Yet, for some reason, everything the guy says in this documentary just made me roll my eyes. The movie attempts to delve into his mind. We learn about his childhood, how both parents were emotionally closed-off. He gets a brain scan, to determine if he's some sort of psychotic danger junkie. Yet this real person never seems to come alive as an interesting character. His ruminations on his vegetarian diet or living in a van are insufferable, making him seem like the most empty of dude-bros. He talks about climbing in such a technical way, that there's no art to it, no passion. He doesn't seem to entirely understand why he's compelled to do this incredibly dangerous thing. So the audience is never given much of a reason to care about that question either.

Since there's nothing much to probe in Alex's head, “Free Solo” instead tries to build material out of whether or not he'll succeed at his climb. Of course, there's not much suspense over whether or not he'll make it to the top of El Capitan. If he died during filming, “Free Solo” would obviously be an entirely different movie. Despite the foregone conclusion, so much attention is paid to the build-up of him making the climb. There are several premature, failed attempts, where he's too nervous to go far. The film also focuses a lot on Alex's girlfriend, who you feel immensely sorry for. The relationship is obviously doomed, as his extremely dangerous hobby makes her deeply uncomfortable. It's repeatedly confirmed throughout the film that free climbing is more important to him than her, that he'll probably die doing it some day. There's even an ill-advised attempt to blame Alex's performance anxiety on her, which is shitty. She seems like a nice person too.

Yet I think the positive notices “Free Solo” has received doesn't have much to do with Honnold. Instead, “Free Solo” does feature some virtuoso film making. The camera operators utilized drones to capture Alex's ascent, when they weren't just strapping themselves to the mountains he climbs. There's several stunning shots in the film. Such as a moment where a rival free climber falls from a very tall height. Your heart jumps into your throat until you realize he's wearing a parachute. The shots of Alex appearing tiny on the face of El Capitan, way up in the sky, are incredible. As are moments devoted to him squeezing into tiny crevices or dangling off perilous inclines. Instead of the laborious build-up, “Free Solo” probably should've been a hour-long television documentary devoted solely to this breathtaking footage.

I really think Honnold's total lack of camera presence is why “Free Solo” floundered for me. There are side-bars in the film that are interesting. Such as a list of other experienced free climbers who died doing their thing. One fatality occurred why the film was shooting, Alex's reaction being typically blank. A moment where a fan of Honnold's, dressed in a pink unicorn costume, meets him on the mountain sure is interesting. Ultimately, a documentary is only as good as its subject. Despite his incredible feats and skills, and the thrilling way they are captured on camera, Alex Honnold makes it difficult for a viewer to give a shit about him. [6/10]

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