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Into Thin Air: Death on Everest

One wishes Into Thin Air: Death on Everest were a child instead of a film, because then it could be spanked for being such a pain in the ass. This 1997 TV movie — based on Jon Krakauer's bestselling memoir about a real-life climbing expedition gone horribly wrong — punches every conceivable emotional hot button, relying on manipulative hooks (like its syrupy musical score) to generate easy tears from its audience, without having to resort to anything so crass as, say, making the characters interesting. The film stars a bunch of interchangeable bearded guys (and a few women — presumably they're the ones without beards) in orange parkas and yellow ski masks who decide to climb the world's tallest mountain. To make things more interesting, the group decides to split into two teams, thereby making the formerly casual trek into a competition: The team that reaches the summit first will be the winner. However, danger rears its ugly head when a gallery of stock footage — oops, that would be a really convincing winter storm — descends upon the mountain. This storm, coupled with the gross incompetence of many of the climbers, results in the death of many of our protagonists before the story's over. All the characters in Into Thin Air can be subdivided into two groups — those who "respect the mountain" by following proper safety protocols, and those who "offend the mountain" by trying to tailor the climb to their own personal strengths. Care to guess which group has the most survivors when it's all over? Admittedly, it would help if Mt. Everest would loosen up, or at least ditch her '50s sensibilities: According to one of the guides, the mountain takes offense at anything that's even remotely liberal. Witness the following exchange between two of the trail guides after they witness the unimaginable horror of — gasp! — an unmarried couple sharing a tent together:

Guide #1: "It's not proper for a man and woman to be together on this mountain when they're not married. Very disrespectful!"
Guide #2: "Americans look at these things differently."
Guide #1: "We're not in America, Jon."

Geez, who knew Mt. Everest was such a prude? Still, you may as well scratch that couple off your scorecard, for director Robert Markowitz has painted Everest as a sentient being, capable of picking and choosing which climbers she will allow to live and which she will slaughter mercilessly. (Most of the deaths are accompanied by the weeping strains of a repetitive musical passage this reviewer eventually started calling "I'm Dying Tenderly on the Mountain, Martha, and It Sure Is Cold Up Here.") It doesn't help that so much of the dialogue reads like a list of "Screenwriting Clichés That Writers Should Never Use," from the clumsily handled exposition (of the "Golly gee, Professor, explain again how the anti-matter chamber works, even though I should already know" variety) and the howlingly insensitive "pep talks" our heroes give each other when they're about to die (a personal favorite: "Get up, man! For God's sake, you've got children!") Although it's obvious the real-life events didn't play out as such, Into Thin Air is completely predictable, even containing all the usual clichéd lines that spell inevitable doom in a movie ("Relax, I know what I'm doing!"; or "It's gonna be just fine, I promise.") Worst of all is the trite Wonder Years-style narration delivered by Krakauer (played by Christopher McDonald) throughout the film — garbage like "From this point on, it was every climber for himself" and "Although I didn't realize it at the time, this climb would be the worst mistake of my life." In addition, Columbia TriStar's DVD presentation of Into Thin Air: Death on Everest offers little to interest the digital connoisseur. The film is presented in an unremarkable full-frame transfer that shows slight pixellation during many of the darker moments and appears a tad soft even at the best of times. The disc includes four audio tracks (English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese) and seven optional subtitle tracks (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai). Trailers for Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, "talent" files. Keep-case.
—Joe Barlow

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