Scottish author Robert Macfarlane has published numerous books musing on our relationship with the natural world, frequently delving into the historical and religious while leaving enough room for his work to be considered psychogeography. The Old Ways, his most recent, charts historic paths and roads—in their effect on the average walker escaping from the city and their importance as former pilgrimage routes. Mountains of the Mind explores the act of climbing mountains and their imposing presence in our lives, and it provides a discussion of their cultural history. Such a book does not necessarily lend itself easily to a film adaptation, but Jennifer Peedom seeks to do just that with Mountain. In collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, it is a filmic, philosophical essay on the majesty of mountains, as narrated by Willem Dafoe. Beautiful cinematography and poetic turns of phrase ensure that Mountain is a stunning film, but it lacks true substance, for better or worse.

If you regularly read National Geographic, some of the footage in Mountain will be all too familiar. Photographer and climber Renan Ozturk serves as director of photography on this project, and the film opens with perhaps the most recognizable image of mountain climbing from the past decade. Infamous free-solo climber Alex Honnold is featured twice in Mountain, each time an example of nature’s sheer magnitude and the fine line between exhilaration and real danger. What remains consistent throughout the film is the focus on the mountains rather than the humans who risk their lives for sport, faith or industry. Even as it is a cultural history, Peedom and Macfarlane’s script hones in on the mountain’s place in our paradigm.

That being said, enlisting actual climbers, mountain bikers and tightrope walkers to shoot this film has produced some fabulous footage. We are briefly shown the reality of camping on the side of a mountain, strapped into a cocooning sleeping bag trustingly tied to the rock face. Base jumping footage is a highlight of Mountain, potentially made all the more thrilling if we knew where it occurred; the deadly sport is illegal in national parks such as Yosemite.

While there are recognizable figures featured, Dafoe is the sole voice we hear. There are no interviews in this documentary, nor are there even direct discussions about the footage shown in all cases. Peedom’s structure is much more based around the contributions of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with sequences edited to conform to the movements. The classical music is constant, even when Dafoe’s interjections are not. The narration is surprisingly sparse, with Dafoe largely offering somber, lofty words before delving into another montage. There is sadly minimal context surrounding mentions of hobbyists’ “headlong pursuit of peril” or mountains as “a testing ground on which the self can best be illuminated,” least of all utterances of their power to “humble the human instinct”—only supported by the images, all of which astound. Although the film has a script, Peedom does not opt for title cards to indicate which mountains are being shown in breathtaking drone footage. The effect is therefore most like a natural tour of the world.

Like Planet Earth, Mountain offers beautiful shots of some of the most treacherous places on Earth, but it provides far less substance. The project, though, is much more of an artistic endeavor than an educational one. More structure perhaps would have given the film the impression of a broader intention behind making it. As it stands, Mountain is a visually awe-inspiring companion to Macfarlane’s book and an uncharacteristic take on a naturalist documentary.

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