Summit Fever could have climbed to better heights, but it’s base-level take leaves it just a cheesy, overlong mess.
With rock-climbing films steadily entering the mainstream over the past few years, it was only a matter of time before the flurry of prestige entries fizzled into B-movie territory. British director Julian Gilbey’s Summit Fever dabbles in adventure, disaster, and romance but is entirely lacking in emotional depth or nuance, resulting in a cheesy, overlong mess that indulges in exactly the cheap climbing clichés better directors have taken pains to avoid. The plot concerns 22-year-old Michael (Freddie Thorp) and his friend Jean-Pierre/JP (Michel Biel), avid alpinists who spend a summer in the French-Swiss region of Chamonix to tick the so-called Big Three — Matterhorn, the Eiger, and Mont Blanc — off their bucket list.
Michael, with a tragic past and reserved demeanor, is the more risk-averse of the two. But the influence of JP, plus Chamonix fixtures Leo (a dickish Ryan Phillippe) and his girlfriend Natasha (Hannah New), pushes him to prove himself on the mountains, and he manages to summit Matterhorn with relative ease. In between expeditions, he also embarks on a romance with French skier Isabelle (Mathilde Warnier). Meanwhile, snowboarder Rudy (Théo Christine), who struggles up a gym route before tackling Mont Blanc (excuse me?), and Bea (Jocelyn Wedow), a climber/bartender who’s looking for something spicy to secure sponsors, join the crew later.
Even before the group’s climactic push up Mont Blanc, the film is littered with bodies: Michael and Isabelle come across two dead climbers during a ski trip (for a movie about climbing, there sure are a lot of ski scenes), while the local free solo hero, Damien Roux, falls to his death during a highly publicized climb as fans watch through binoculars. This last scene feels especially tasteless given the care that documentary filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi took in their film Free Solo to avoid capturing that very real possibility on camera. It’s a lurid, artless moment that Gilbey tries to turn into commentary on the commercial side of climbing — not entirely believable, given that the characters are actively trying to attract sponsors. Even the climbing bros aren’t safe — on a doomed run of the Eiger, Leo and Natasha are fatally struck by choss and falling boulders.
It’s true that serious climbers, especially free soloists and mountaineers, are tempting fate with every expedition. What does that do for the friends, loved ones, and peers they leave behind? How do climbers grapple with survivor’s guilt and PTSD while pursuing their passion? Gilbey could have explored all these questions and more, but that would be a very different movie. Instead, JP presides over a drunken memorial for the couple by telling the crowd that at least they died doing what they loved. Days later, he’s back on the wall, chiding Michael for falling victim to flashbacks and telling him that climbing is the best way to honor their fallen friends. It’s no wonder JP is a climber, since he has the emotional range of a chalk bucket.
Two-thirds into a nearly two-hour movie, Michael, JP, Rudy, and Bea finally gear up for Mont Blanc. Things immediately go wrong: a falling rock breaks Bea’s arm. A major storm changes direction and heads straight for them. Rescue choppers are grounded because of heavy wind. The remaining half hour or so is, simply put, cheesy as hell. The luckless Bea gets struck by lightning mid-sentence. Michael is confronted by a mysterious dark figure that’s definitely not his dead sister. Isabelle, who’s helping her friend Claude with the rescue mission, doesn’t seem to realize that he would make a much better boyfriend. When the skies finally clear, she and Michael part ways for good after he tells her he’ll walk away from climbing and she wisely rebuffs him. The final scene is her crying on a bus and him — what else? — free soloing. They didn’t look like tears of relief, but they should be. As for audiences, the film’s one redeeming feature is its gorgeous alpine scenery, but viewers would do better to save themselves two hours and look at a Microsoft background instead.