File this one under Movies That Simply Must Be Seen on the Big Screen. If you were a fan of Meru, the 2015 documentary from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi about Chin’s ascent to the 21 000 foot-high Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas, you’ll definitely appreciate the magnificent feat Free Solo achieves. This one turns the thrill level up a whole dozen notches more, following climber Alex Honnold, as he seeks to make it to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite – without the kind of traditional gear that Chin and his crew, and basically most climbers, usually use.
For that is what it means to free solo, in the climbing world. With no harness, no support. The poster for this film conveys a smidgeon of what Alex Honnold attempted to do. Like a good biopic where you know the ending of the story, this film works to build the tension and drama of how Honnold tackles this death-defying challenge. Along the way, he falls in love, adding in an element that had previously not been a factor in his life. It elevates the stakes all the more – as if his life itself weren’t high enough a stake already. Love may be nice to have around, but for Alex, if it’s that or the mountain, his allegiance has been decided long time ago.
I watched most of this film as if I were watching a really good horror film, with my hands over my eyes and squirming in my seat. I may have screamed out loud a few times too. The cinematography is unreal – the crew had to be ready at any moment that Alex decided to make the climb and stay well out of sight. Epic feels too underwhelming a word to describe the images that play out on the screen as we follow in Alex’s unaided footsteps and chalk-covered hand-plants.
It’s so fascinating to come up close to the mountain peak, to feel what it would be like to do something so many of us won’t actually ever come anywhere near to doing. But even more arresting is Alex himself. What lies behind those deep brown eyes that calls him to chase these unbelievable dreams? What does it mean to never give up on an audacious dream? What is it worth? To Alex, to those around him, to other climbers and to the rest of us spectators?
While Free Solo goes big on the visuals, it doesn’t forget to attempt to answer these questions. As small as they may seem in the face of a 7 000-something-foot high vertical rock formation, they make the film all the more captivating.