Whilst not a disaster movie in the strict sense, Meru is a documentary that covers three mountaineers that tackle Mount Meru across two attempts and their lives in-between. Released around the same time as Everest, I found this documentary was far more compelling to watch from character study and a cinematic point of view. So whilst it is strictly and extreme sports documentary, there is so much peril and avalanche drama, I’ve included it on that basis.
The Disasters Faced
Extreme climbing, avalanches, frostbite, altitude sickness, skiing accidents, the loss of climbing partners and mentors and knowing that couscous is for dinner yet again.
Jimmy Chin is clearly a busy man with an eye for amazing visuals. Combining his love of extreme sports and mountaineering, the Go Pro was frankly made for a man like Jimmy to use and give the gift of vistas we’d never see in a thousand years. He is the quiet driving force that sees a trio attempt the Mount Meru climb. Conrad is the leader and most experienced climber of the three. He is also driven by the emotions of his previous climbing partner and a mentor he’d lost on the way. Renan is literally Human Spiderman. A free climber, he is the newbie but full of energy for his love to climb. The film starts at their lowest ebb and in trouble on their second climb but then through a mixture of interviews and footage en route, we see how their first attempt went wrong and how that seemed to play on their minds. During their first attempt in 2008, they could literally see the summit but with Renan keeping everyone in check, he stops a potentially too risky situation happening and gets everyone to agree to turnaround. Whilst the physical toll is short term, the mental toll is much longer. From there we see how accidents for Jimmy and especially Renan between the trips then give them a huge goal to strive to climb Meru again. Jimmy survives an avalanche whilst Renan has a massive skiing accident – cracking his skull. He begins a huge push in a 5 month period to try and get himself ready to join Jimmy and Conrad on Meru. For Conrad, it is personal as he wants to climb the mountain his mentor couldn’t. Whilst we know that they are all alive – the question is did they actual scale the mountain on their second attempt? It’s a tight 90-minute ride, full of emotion, vistas and a lot of talk about trust, respect and mental well-being.
Why is it worth watching
Meru really engaged me on a couple of levels. Firstly, as a direct comparison to Everest, that film gave almost all the characters zero character whatsoever. Here, we have three fully fleshed-out people and we get to inspect their mind and what makes them tick. It’s fascinating to see how they all justify perceived risks and how an error in judgement can cost them their lives – but also how actually sometimes you are doomed to pure chance anyway. There are parts where you can hear an avalanche blasting past them and I’m thinking ‘oh hell no!’ whereas these guys take it in their stride.
It also spends a lot of time talking about trust and teamwork far more than going into any technical skill and how those inform your choices too. Beneath it all is a driving force of friendship though. It is clear that respect is what initially binds the three together but over the years the film takes place, you can see how they’ve all bonded together.
Thirdly, Renan and his attitude to recovery and attempting what he does is borderline insane but also awe-inspiring. The doctors are saying any one of his injuries could have left him disabled or perhaps brain-damaged and yet he just powers through. Whilst all three men are crazy and inspiring in their own way, Renan could have his own movie and there would be enough material to go around.
Lastly, the photography is absolutely stunning. Jimmy, in particular, has such a dramatic eye for detail, scale, drama and visual impact, you can pause the movie pretty much anywhere and you have a dramatic screensaver and an awesome backdrop. My jaw dropped on several occasions at the dangerous beauty of it all.
Since it’s almost all entirely real footage, there are no effects but it’s remarkable the shots and sweeping landscapes they were able to capture on their journey.
Whilst everyone here is real, I really did enjoy finding out more about Conrad, Jimmy and Renan as you went up the mountain with them. In particular, I found Conrad’s situation to be fascinating. Lost in grief following the death of his climbing partner Alex, he went on to marry the wife Alex left behind, Jenni. Whilst that gave himself to live on for and got him out of his rut, Jimmy following his mothers’ death almost admits to having somewhat of a more lax attitude to risks since. Hearing from their partners and also from Jon Krakauer who wrote ‘Into Thin Air’ helps ground the more gung-ho approach with the realism of ‘what on Earth are you doing you nutters’.
‘…maybe it’ll defeat everyone for all time. To a certain kind of mind set – its an irresistable appeal.’
Three memorable moments
- All of the avalanches
- Renan’s initial accident and recovery in hospital
- Any time they are hanging off the side of the mountain in their hanging tent…
The obligatory weird moment
Spoilers ahead. Aside from the frankly terrifying hanging tent that the trio seem to live out of, the weird moment for me isn’t necessarily covered on screen in the film, but found in the DVD extras. After getting all the way to the summit, they only spent an hour at the top before it was time to go back down again! Conrad made some tea. A Brit in waiting if ever I saw one! All that for one hour? I know the temperatures and air ratio is low but one hour?! Shortchanged!
The drinking game
Seeing someone justify why they did something completely nuts. ‘Oh let’s just not use a tent’ … erm pardon?!
Whilst not strictly a disaster movie, this has all the elements of one but wrapped into an extreme sports documentary. On top of that, it is engaging, fascinating and astounding brave and/or stupid depending on where you sit on the spectrum but it’s certainly very watchable!
Rating: 4 / 5 Great
If you liked Meru then you may like…
- The Dawn Wall – Another extreme climbing documentary that is fantastic
- Into the Void – the better of the Everest based movies
- Alive – The true story of the plane crash of a football team forced to cannibalism
I Love Disaster Movies is part of the Higher Plain Network. If you like what I do, and would like to help me make better and more content then please consider supporting me via Patreon. Thank you.
*This review was updated to the new ILDM review format on 5th October 2019.