About halfway through the megabudget mountain-climbing adventure Vertical Limit, even the most rugged, thrill-hungry disaster-movie fans may find themselves going numb: Not from the howling weather on the icy faces of K2, in the Himalayas, where the action supposedly takes place. Not from oxygen deprivation. Not even from stretches of dialogue so crudely written and screamingly delivered that you start hoping the characters' vocal cords will freeze up.
No, the way director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro) manages to shut down the blood flow to our brains, if not our fingers and toes, is through crisis overload. Here's how: In the movie's first scene, he cuts loose a rock climber dangling from a red-faced butte in Utah and sends him hurtling to his death. A few moments later, in Pakistan, he whips up a blizzard, kills off a dozen or so extras and dumps three mountaineers into a tomblike ice cave at 26,000 feet. After setting off a couple of avalanches, he sends a huge helicopter up to maximum altitude, where the pilot struggles with failing aerodynamics as he tries to unload his cargo of wind-whipped rescuers onto a narrow mountain ledge. We are only 40 minutes into the movie, and already a kind of disaster fatigue is beginning to set in. But there are still three or four more blinding snowslides, a half-dozen exotic deaths and several elaborate rescue sequences to come. After all, we haven't even gotten yet to the business of those volatile nitroglycerine cylinders on loan from the Pakistani army -- and The Wages of Fear. We haven't yet absorbed our medical lesson about high-altitude suffocation by way of pulmonary edema or divined the murderous intent of one of the rescue climbers.
The makers of today's blockbusters are forced, by the accumulated bombast of their predecessors, into the same "can you top this" mode. Although that can result in some pretty exciting fireworks, as it does here, it doesn't always make for very good moviemaking. Campbell's ceaseless bombardment of overpriced sensations, competing for our attentions with a quadruple-fortissimo score by James Newton Howard, is designed to keep action-crazy audiences at a high emotional pitch. But the images soon lose texture, become indistinguishable. You see one guy vanish into a crevasse, you've seen 'em all. You hear one explosion, you've heard every explosion. Not only that, but the editing here is sometimes so muddled that we're not quite sure what did happen on the screen or to whom.
Mountain climbers of both the actual and the armchair variety may love every frame of Vertical Limit, especially for some dizzying deep-focus mountain views by the outstanding British cinematographer David Tattersall (The Green Mile, Star Wars: Episode I). But a lot of what you see is artifice. That's not 28,250-foot K2 up there onscreen; it's New Zealand's Mount Cook, which, at just over 12,000 feet, is a relative molehill. Those aren't real Sherpas, they're actors. And a lot of that white stuff isn't snow. Vertical Limit's credits list 35 special-effects technicians and 74 visual-effects people, many of whom found themselves hard at work on a 20,000-square-foot refrigerated soundstage in Queenstown, molding big polystyrene blocks into mountain sets, spraying them with wax and finishing them up with something called "Snow Foam."
The characters are pretty synthetic, too, which is standard operating procedure for disaster flicks. Chris O'Donnell stars as Peter Garrett, a nature photographer who's given up climbing in the wake of a family tragedy that took his father's life. His plucky sister, Annie (Robin Tunney), climbs on, though, in honor of Dad. "Up there," she gurgles, "I touch his soul." Toss in a cocky Texas billionaire (Bill Paxton) with a taste for expensive and dangerous publicity stunts, a gorgeous French-Canadian nurse (ex-James Bond beauty Izabella Scorupco) and a colorfully international supporting cast of rogues and rascals, and you've just about got it -- except for crusty old Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), a Zen-chanting master of the mountain without whose help fresh-faced hero Peter will never be able to rescue sister Annie, set family matters straight and save his own immortal soul. Want the book on Wick? He's the parka-and-pitons equivalent of Quint, the tyrannical old salt who did elemental battle with the shark in Jaws.
Now, if we choose to believe the predictable prerelease assertions by the writers (Robert King and Terry Hayes), the actors and the director of this enterprise, Vertical Limit is about "relationships." That claim, of course, is fueled partly by hope, partly by delusion. What the movie's really about is dangerous ice. And altitude. And avalanches. It's about people of various nationalities falling or getting blown off the sides of a mountain. It's about rescuing frozen survivors in the nick of time and trying to out-thrill the other action pictures playing at the multiplex. King and Hayes' scraps of plot don't add up to much -- certainly no more than the scraps of plot that threw mountain man Sylvester Stallone into pitched battle with villain John Lithgow in Cliffhanger, or those that sent a bespiked and pickax-equipped Clint Eastwood aloft in The Eiger Sanction. In fact, the last time a mountain movie had anything to do with a "relationship" was probably in 1932, when a comely German lass named Leni Riefenstahl directed an alpine adventure called The Blue Light. It so bestirred movie lover Adolf Hitler that he put Riefenstahl on the payroll to make Nazi propaganda films, including her infamous masterpiece Triumph of the Will.
For its physical attractions and obvious excitements, Vertical Limit represents another kind of propaganda -- namely, the current Hollywood notion that the bigger and louder and longer a movie is, the more people will want to see it, even if that means getting benumbed by sensation before your popcorn's cold.