Snow Job

When it comes to weather porn, the new ice opera Vertical Limit is strictly softcore. Hardcore weather porn is the uncut stuff: Weather Channel specials, World's Deadliest Hailstorms, camcorder footage of a cyclone pitching somebody's trailer into the next county. No plot, no sops to respectability, just one money shot after another of Mother Nature hittin' her spot. At heart, that's all weather-porn junkies crave anyway: the peculiar mix of schadenfreude, helplessness, and serious devastation that only nature's fury can deliver.

However, like red-faced businessmen who pretend to skim Barely Legal for playground equipment, some viewers insist on deceiving themselves that they want their weather porn laced with cinematic niceties. Thus are born softcore Al Roker roughies such as Twister and The Perfect Storm. A little plot, a few name actors, a whisper of noble purpose—"This film is dedicated to America's fearless tornado chasers!"—and audiences can act as if they didn't pay to see the meteorological version of a cockfight.

The same goes for Vertical Limit, an unsatisfying marriage of IMAX visuals to a GAF Viewmaster script. The hero is Chris O'Donnell, a wooden Webelos of an actor who is clean, thrifty, obedient and trustworthy but not, alas, silent. Shutterbug O'Donnell and his sister, ace mountain climber Robin Tunney, haven't spoken much since a shared family trauma. But when Sis ventures up the face of K2, the world's second highest peak, for a PR stunt, O'Donnell looks on with concern. Near the peak, needless to say, a freak windstorm whips up. The climbing team ends up in a crevasse, and O'Donnell must overcome his high anxiety to assemble a rescue party.

The ascent is an excuse for director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro) to do what he does best: call in the second unit. The aerial photography of sculpted peaks and dizzying chasms is indeed breathtaking, and there are a couple of high-tension action scenes—one with a wobbly helicopter, another with an unstable precipice—that pack all the thrills promised by the kick-ass trailer. Whenever interest lags, Campbell and his effects team trigger an explosion or avalanche. The latter tends to look like someone emptying a fire extinguisher in the viewer's face; it's usually accompanied by a roar not unlike a rock tumbler run through a Marshall stack. This is the good stuff.

The bad stuff, meanwhile, is the same cardboard plotting and rote characterization that made the exposition in Twister and The Perfect Storm so laughable. There's some nonsense about a crusty mountaineer (Scott Glenn) with a frozen wife and a secret agenda; you win a Syd Field screenwriting guide if you guessed that both will come into play. There are also some horrible comic-relief Australians, a devout Muslim, a kick-ass chick with lashes almost as long as O'Donnell's—and, oh, yeah, the nitroglycerin. This elusive substance is so volatile that a bootprint's worth will leave a crater; yet if you carry it up a cliff face in a backpack, battered by wind and constant motion, it'll ride just fine. Unless, of course, you expose it to sunlight. How much sunlight? Like we said, it's elusive.

Weather porn isn't exactly an art form to inspire. Far superior would be a movie that conveyed character strictly through action and behavior under pressure—a reminder why man versus the elements is one of the defining conflicts of literature. Why have all the cornball backstory and the cartoon villainy? As it stands, the movie's fine as long as it sticks to scenery and snowy wrath. It's the human element of Vertical Limit that leaves viewers horizontal.

Vertical Limit was directed by Martin Campbell; produced by Campbell, Robert King and Lloyd Philips; executive produced by Marcia Nasatir; written by King and Terry Hayes; and stars Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn and Izabella Scorupco. Now playing countywide.


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