Program Notes: Vertical Limit (2000)

Listening to an audience watching Vertical Limit is a lot like eavesdropping on an amusement park thrill ride.

There are whines and moans, yelps of surprise, and little screams of shock followed by nervous giggles and sighs of relief.

And, possibly, even some derisive laughter when Vertical Limit veers into sheer lunacy.

But, hey, nobody's going to see this mountain-climbing flick in the hopes of world-class drama. Nope, they're going to experience the gut-twisting fear of dangling off a 1,000-foot precipice while a mile-wide avalanche of snow comes roaring at you down a Himalayan slope.

Based solely on that criteria, Vertical Limit delivers.

Chris O'Donnell plays our hero, Peter Garrett, who in the film's first grueling scene – set high on a sheer-rock face in Arizona's Monument Valley – makes a fatal decision that will haunt him forever. He's so traumatized, in fact, that he gives up mountain climbing in favor of photographing wildlife for National Geographic.

Film Screening:
Vertical Limit (2000)
Saturday, July 13 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

But his little sister Annie (Robin Tunney), another survivor of that nasty incident, is still tackling the big ones. In fact, she's preparing an assault on the world's second-highest peak – Pakistan's K2. The climb has been organized by Texas industrialist Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) as a promotional stunt for the launch of his new commercial airline.

Vaughn is one of those cocky Type A personalities who figures that if he throws enough money at Mother Nature she'll be cowed into submission. He has set up a well-stocked base camp that resembles a Club Med franchise and, relying on state-of-the-art weather forecasting equipment, has set a timetable for climbing K2.

Needless to say, the mountain shows little respect for human timetables. The climbers are caught in a blizzard and tumble into a deep crevasse. They're at such a high altitude that within 24 hours they'll die from lack of oxygen.

It's up to Peter to organize a rescue effort, abetted by a couple of wise guy Aussie slacker siblings (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn), a grouchy/gorgeous French-Canadian nurse (Izabella Scorupco), a Pakistani (Alexander Siddig), and an especially grizzled old Himalayan veteran (Scott Glenn).

Oh, and did I mention that the rescue party is carrying several canisters of highly unstable nitroglycerin?

Glenn's Montgomery Wick is the most interesting character in the film by a long shot. He's an antisocial hermit who lives in an isolated snow field and, like some crazed Ahab, wanders the face of K2 searching for the frozen remains of his wife, who died on another Elliot Vaughn expedition some years before. The lean, sun-crinkled Glenn is exactly the right actor for the role.

And speaking of Paxton's Vaughn, we discover there's a reason he has survived in situations where his fellow climbers have succumbed.

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The acting, writing (by Robert King and Terry Hayes), and direction (from Martin Campbell) are pretty much standard Hollywood issue.

The real reason to see the movie, of course, is for the outlandish stunts, special effects, and spectacular scenery. (Most of the film was shot in New Zealand, although second unit footage from the Himalayas has been effortlessly integrated.)

So, providing you don't suffer from vertigo, strap yourself into your seat and hang on for the ride.

Other films in the series “Where the Air is Thin”

On July 28 the Library debuts the new documentary Nawang Gombu: Heart of a Tiger, about one of the world’s great mountaineers. That documentary, produced by Kansas City filmmaker Bev Chapman, inspired this film series about life and death at high altitudes.

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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