Thursday, May 2, 2019

Free Solo's Outstanding Camerawork Is Nightmare Fuel For People With a Fear of Heights

If there's one job I'm just not cut out for, it's mountain climber. My vertigo kicks in if I go up a particularly high escalator, I can only imagine how distraught I'd be trying to ascend the side of a mountain. But there's plenty of people who don't just manage to actually climb up mountains, they excel at it and some even manage to do with without any ropes to provide protection for them. These climbers are known as free solo climbers and one of the most famous people in this field is Alex Honnold, the star of Free Solo, a documentary about his exploits trying to ascend the El Capitan rock formation over the course of two years. It's a monumental task with an equally massive level of risk attached to it but Honnold is not the kind of guy who just sticks to the safe and sound.

Over the course of this documentary, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin also capture Honnold starting up a romantic relationship with a woman named Sanni McCandless. Alex is a guy who keeps things close to the chest and isn't all that expressive, so the task of actually maintaining a romantic relationship is as much of a struggle as free solo climbing up a mountain, perhaps even moreso. Amusing footage of the two together that includes them planning out climbing expeditions or just shopping around for a house to live in together clearly demonstrate how much this relationship has allowed Holland to open up as a person.

These sequences, as well as a scene with Honnold giving a presentation to students at his old High School, help ensure that the lead character of Free Solo is developed more beyond just an emotionally reserved daredevil. Conversely, it feels like more screentime could have been devoted to giving some personality to the various individuals that tag along with Honnold's to help him accomplish his risky climbing exercises. A scene showing all of these people gathering together before Honnold embarks up El Capitan is supposed to have a bittersweet quality to it that just isn't there. Instead, it just made me realize how little I had come to know these characters over the course of a feature film.

That isn't the worst flaw for Free Solo to have, though, considering that fleshing out the supporting members of Alex Honnold's climbs isn't the features main goal. Instead, the primary mission of Free Solo is to film various free solo mountain climbing experiences as they're happening and the footage they've managed to capture of this is absolutely stunning to look at. Vasarhelyi and Chin give viewers a glimpse into all the preparation and intense coordination it took to get this footage filmed and all of that effort has paid off, to say the least! From the very first opening scene, Free Solo makes it clear that the viewer will be placed right next to Honnold as he makes his way up a dizzyingly tall mountain and it's a sight that made me feel like I was minutes away from falling off a cliff! 

The best virtual reality tech could only wish it was as immersive as the camerawork in Free Solo, no wonder it played for so long in IMAX locations! It must be said that certain parts of the character-based sequences in Free Solo are more disposable than illuminating, and I can't help but wonder if the pacing of the whole endeavor would be better if Free Solo ran at a 40-60 minute runtime common for traditional IMAX documentaries. Luckily, that's not what you'll be talking about with your friends once the movie ends. No, the primary point of conversations related to Free Solo will be the sequences depicting Honnold free solo climbing, which are jaw-droppingly impressive.

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