Movie review: 'The Summit' a breath-taking documentary and a literal cliffhanger

Documentaries are not supposed to be bone-chilling, edge-of-your-seat entertainment, right? Well in Nick Ryan's new film, The Summit (opening today), he shows that the sky is the limit - or rather, that the sky is not the limit - in the fascinating world of mountain climbing.

"The Summit."

2013 IFC Films

Using actual footage and photos mixed with seamless reenactments of events, The Summit takes us inside one of the most tragic expeditions ever to occur. In August of 2008, groups of experienced climbers from all over the globe set out to conquer the Himalayan mountain known as K2. Mt. Everest? That's for wussies. In the mountain climbing world, the biggest fish is K2. Although its summit is only the second-highest in the world (following Mt. Everest), it is considered hands-down one of the most deadliest and dangerous treks in the world.

On that day in 2008, 11 climbers lost their lives. Of the 18 that actually reached the summit of K2, seven of them didn't make it back down the mountain.

Director Nick Ryan takes you right up there. We get a 101 course on mountain climbing lingo and common practices. We learn all about the several groups - one made up Americans, one of Serbians, one of Koreans, among others - and the level of teamwork that goes into scaling a mountain that at its peak is over 8000 meters high. We meet several interesting characters and we start to gather which of them survived that horrible day, by process of elimination as to who isn't providing us with commentary.

What we don't learn about is why the hell people do this. Surely, it takes a certain kind of person to participate in something where one in four who attempt it, die trying, as is the case with K2 climbers. A "sport" in which someone in the film describes as containing an "unwritten rule" where if someone is dying on the mountain, you should just leave them there. A "hobby" where one wrong step could have you plummeting to your death.

Usually you watch a documentary to learn, but as is the case with The Summit, you just want to survive it. Being afraid of heights myself, the entirety of this film had me feeling wheezy, like I just couldn't wait to get my feet back on solid ground. The movie-critic in me wondered just how the heck this was filmed and which portions were "real" and which were being portrayed by actors. The mix of action, suspense and real life was a tremendous success and sets this film apart from other "talking head" documentaries.

Some of the narrative seemed to drift, like a mixed-in story about an Italian climber who had climbed K2 years before. It did little to impact the overall story and became an annoying diversion the more I became invested in the 2008 hikers.

Like watching The Titanic, towards the end I was so invested in some of these "characters" that I just wished somehow everything would be OK, even though I knew the outcome was horrific. If ever there was a real-life event waiting to be turned into a feature-length action film, this would be it.

The Summit is a new breed of documentary: A film that teaches, informs and enlightens while simultaneously engaging the viewer with suspenseful storytelling and hair-raising, visual dramatizations. But again, non-climbers just have three questions for K2 mountain climbers: Why, why and why?

Genre: Documentary

Run Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, Rated R

Directed by Nick Ryan (feature-film debut)

Opens locally on Friday, Oct 18, 2013 (check for show times).

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time