We gave it a B
The very first shot of Meru is enough to terrify any non-climber: a tent hanging vertically off the side of a snow-capped mountain. This is, in fact, a normal night’s sleep for the three climbers inside – Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk, and director Jimmy Chin – who have set out with this film to show civilians exactly what it’s like to climb a mountain.
One mountain in particular is their focus: Meru Peak, a jagged Himalayan peak that, according to Hindu mythology, might be the center of the universe. The tip of Meru is a 1,000-ft vertical wall known as the Shark’s Fin, which towers above the Ganges River in northern India and is perversely difficult to climb – so difficult, in fact, that no one had ever completed an ascent before. On their first attempt in 2008, the Anker/Ozturk/Chin trio was hit with a freak snowstorm and foot shortage that forced them to turn back. They vowed to return, though any outsider faced with that memorable shot of their bloody, frostbitten feet would wonder why the hell they would ever try again.
Answering that question is, essentially, the purpose of this story. Mountain climbing is a great exercise in chaos theory, and success means triumphing over a variety of unpredictable obstacles. Anker, Chin, and Ozturk all live for that challenge, but have difficulty explaining why. The movie does the job for them, showcasing the downfalls of this life in such detail (footage of Ozturk being wheeled through a hospital after breaking his neck in a freak accident, for instance, and a recreation of the avalanche that almost killed Chin) that the audience authentically comes to understand the deep well of emotion beneath their triumphs. Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer helps out as a talking head to bridge the gap between cultures, explaining climber jargon and analyzing their decisions to a mainstream audience.
Meru the mountain is sometimes known as the “anti-Everest,” because of its less famous name and the lack of cheap labor to carry your bags. Meru the film, then, might be the anti-Everest. There are no expensive special effects, but there is a lot of authentic climbing footage that oscillates between magnificent (wide shots of vistas) and intimate (the climbers huddled together in their tent, eating couscous for the fourth day in a row). In lieu of Oscar-grabby performances, there are climbers talking, raw and intense, about the tragedies they’ve weathered on their way to accomplishing something no one else has. B