Film Review – The Summit of the Gods
The Summit of the Gods
The Summit of the Gods (2021) starts out as a mystery and evolves into something more than that. Featuring gorgeous, realistic animation, the film investigates the reasons why people go on personal conquests that put them in extreme physical danger. Whether it be diving into the depths of the ocean, blasting off into space, or climbing the world’s tallest mountain, there’s a need – maybe an addiction – for some to push their limits. I’ve never felt the urge to walk up to the edge of the abyss and peer over just for the sake of it, but I admire those that do. To them, confronting death is a way to feel alive.
Director Patrick Imbert (who also cowrites with Magali Pouzol) adapts Jirô Taniguchi and Baku Yumemakura’s manga series of the same name. Given that this is a French production, the result is an interesting mix of the two cultures. We have Japanese characters living in Japan but speaking French (Netflix also provides an English dub, if you’re so inclined). Some may find fault in this, arguing that it would be easy to simply have Japanese voice actors play the roles. While that argument has validity, the combination of French and Japanese influence creates an oddly universal effect. The desire to accomplish what few others have is something anyone can relate to, regardless of background.
Fukamachi (Damien Boisseau) is a photojournalist who stumbles upon a mystery he becomes obsessed over. Through narration, he informs us that the first people to summit Mount Everest did it in 1953. However, he believes that it may have been done in 1924. The only way to confirm this is with the Kodak camera that was brought on the mission. Although the climbers never returned, the camera could possibly contain images of them making it to the top. In an effort to track the camera’s whereabouts, Fukamachi seeks out Habu (Eric Herson-Macarel), once considered one of the top climbers in the world but has since gone into hiding. Fukamachi believes that Habu knows where the camera is, if not already in possession of it.
We quickly realize that the camera is only a starting point for the narrative and not the central focus. In fact, its importance dissipates the further along we go, replaced by an intimate character study as Fukamachi learns more about Habu. The first half plays like an investigative procedural, with Fukamachi interviewing people associated with the climber. Benjamin Massoubre and Camillelvis Théry’s editing includes extensive flashbacks of each interviewee, all of them providing their perspective on the type of person Habu is. Every testimony adds a piece to the puzzle. Habu’s confidence, intensity, drive, and tragic past combine to create an overall tapestry of his psyche – from moments of pure exhilaration to valleys of loss and sadness. We understand why he is closed off to others and why he insists on climbing the world’s most technical mountains in the dead of winter, when conditions are most dangerous.
Stylistically, the animation has a clean and smooth aesthetic. From the streets of the city to the imposing mountain ranges, everything is conceived with a direct and practical approach. The snowcapped mountains are rendered beautifully, like a landscape painting. We see characters in the foreground with the endless horizon behind them, accentuating just how big and intimidating the environment is. My assumption is that animating the film is in reference to the manga. The style works because it allows the camera to sit in places not possible in real places with real actors. When Fukamachi and Habu traverse dangerous cliffs in the middle of a snowstorm, the camera stays with them. In reality, that probably would not have been an option. The framing and composition appear lifelike, so that when characters are dangling hundreds of feet above ground with only a rope holding them, there is palpable tension.
The true nature of The Summit of the Gods doesn’t appear until the second half, in which Fukamachi follows Habu as he attempts to summit Everest on his own. There are two parallel motivations at play: Habu’s wish to get to the top and Fukamachi’s wish to record it with his photography. Neither one of them back down despite the odds not being in their favor. With a party of two and limited support from the ground, Fukamachi and Habu’s mission is perilous if not deadly. Why do they want to take on such a risk? Probably for the same reasons Alex Honnold tried to climb El Capitan without a safety rope in Free Solo (2018) or why Nimsdai Purja wanted to conquer the world’s highest mountains in seven months in 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible (2021). Sometimes attempting the impossible is enough reason for people to do what they do.
The Summit of the Gods doesn’t really answer all the questions it raises. There are reasons for why Fukamachi went searching for Habu, just as there are reasons for Habu’s determination to ascend Everest. And yet Imbert provides enough ambiguity for us to fill in the blanks. He gives us enough space to have us wonder what we would do in the same position. Perhaps we’re asked to look inside ourselves to find the very things that motivate us. The metaphor is not exactly subtle, but it is effective.