Arts & Events

FILM REVIEW: The Loneliest Planet: Trek Stars and Zen Sum-Opens November 2 at the Shattuck Cinema

By Gar Smith
Friday November 02, 2012 - 09:17:00 AM

If I had to assign one word to the experience of viewing this film, that word would be: interminable. 

The folks who publish the Lonely Planet guides might be tempted to take legal action against director Julia Loktev for turning an innocent mountain trek into chamber of emotional horrors. Two young lovers, Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) set out on an adventure. They hire a local mountaineer (Bidzina Gujabidze, a real-life mountain-climbing legend) to guide them through the majestic Caucasus Mountains of Georgia (Note: we're talking Eastern Europe here, not the US state). 

This film was based on a short story. It must have been a very short story. Unfortunately, the film version goes on — and on — for 113 minutes. I had it easy though. Unlike members of a theater audience, I was able to fast forward. I hit that button no less than 20 times. 

Clearly this was not an easy film to make. The actors, the director, and small film crew had to rough it through some of the most beautiful and demanding terrain on Earth. Bernal and Furstenberg prove themselves to be superb athletes. (In one scene they compete in side-by-side headstands on a mountaintop.) Cast and crew alike shivered in the mountains' icy heights and were blasted by a "historic heat wave." 

It would be fair to say that the geography becomes the "fourth character" in this film. The trekkers are little more than specks in the backdrop of the vast mountains. The grass-covered slopes are treeless and their confining peaks interrupt the sky, signaling that there is no place to hide; no place to escape. 

The cinematography is exceptional and the landscapes are stunning. Unfortunately, the viewing experience threatens to become literally stunning as the camera stares fixedly at these sprawling plains and towering peaks for the better part of a minute. Sometimes there's nothing happening onscreen — except for the barely visible images of the three trekkers moving—slowly, steadily, relentlessly—across a quarter mile of mountain trail. What would be an "establishing shot" in any other movie becomes a can't-blink-contest in this film. If there's a stark panorama of a mountain with a trail on it, be prepared for the camera to linger until the last ant-like trekker has entered stage right and exited stage left. 

There is almost no music in the film. Instead, there is the constant background noise of plodding boots, stamping feet, clinking rocks, and rustling underbrush. 

And there is little dialogue. Half of the film's few conversations are spoken in foreign tongues and half of the English that is spoken is broken English. 

There is one critical scene (and just one). It hinges on a four-way conversation that is unintelligible to Western ears. At one point, a gun is inexplicably pointed at an individual's face. The gunman holds position and no one moves—for 30 seconds (I timed it). 

The trailer and the publicity fliers let us know that Something Happens mid-way through the trek. "A momentary misstep—a gesture that takes only two or three seconds, a gesture that's over almost as soon as it begins. But once it is done, it can't be undone." 

This is the guessing game going in: Does someone die? Will someone be gravely injured. Every time the trekkers cross a rocky outcropping or ford a raging stream, the audience is prepared for the worst. 

But when the Something Happens, it turns out to be both less-and-more than one would anticipate. In another movie, it might provoke laughter. (As a matter of fact, in Woody Allen's To Rome with Love, it does.) 

Something Happens and, well, the film moves on. More trudging. More silence, but now it's a "troubled silence." There is moral failure and betrayal in the air and no words can explain it (and, worse, no one even tries). Director Loktev has expressed the hope that this unresolved angst "might lead to some interesting date conversations." 

If I'm not mistaken, the last line of the script is: "I'm starting to feel pukey…." And then it ends, with another Vast Scene of the Trekkers, still in the middle of the all-encompassing wilderness, slowly —ever so slowly — breaking camp, unzipping their tents, folding their tents, stowing their tents. And it's over. Except for the credit-scroll and the sound track's inescapable, extended toll of plodding, scraping boots, labored breathing, and noises of three people preparing to strap on their backpacks for another day of aimless, brooding walking.