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Film / Vertical Limit

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"Up there, you're not dying, Mr. Garrett... You're dead."
Montgomery Wick

Vertical Limit is a 2000 survival/adventure drama film directed by Martin Campbell, about a group of climbers who become stranded in an avalanche on the K2 mountain in the Karakoram (the northwestern extension of the Himalaya between China and Pakistan), and the rescue mission launched to find them.

The cast includes Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Izabella Scorupco and Scott Glenn. It won several awards for drama and visual effects.

This film provides examples of:

  • As Himself: Renowned climber Ed Viesturs cameos.
  • Badass Boast: Montgomery Wick.
    Wick: Before we get started, let's agree on one thing; this is not one of those "climbing democracies". On a rescue mission, we don't vote, we don't question, we don't argue. You listen and do exactly as I say.
  • Big Bad: Elliot Vaughn with K2 itself, arguably, being the Greater-Scope Villain.
  • Big Brother Instinct: The reason Peter’s so insistent on rescuing Annie, even though multiple other characters insist it’s suicide.
    Peter: My sister's dying up there, Mr. Wick.
    Wick: Up there you're not dying. You're dead.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Peter succeeds in rescuing Annie. Wick finally finds his wife's body, and even gets his vengeance on Vaughn who left her to die on a previous climb. But out of 6 rescuers and 3 trapped climbers, only 1/3 of those characters, 2 rescuers (of which Wick isn't included) and 1 trapped climber make it back.
  • Canada, Eh?: Monique is French-Canadian. Skip says that when she's in a good mood she's "Canadian" but when she's not, she's "French".
  • Cut the Safety Rope: Happens to the main characters’ father in the prologue, causing the friction between him and his sister. All the more heartbreaking as it was the son who cut the rope at his father’s insistence just moments before the sister was able to attach additional securing that might have saved them. Repeated with an Ironic Echo at the end of the film when The Mentor sacrifices both himself and the Smug Snake (unwillingly) to save the others.
  • Death World: Wick makes a few speeches throughout the film (two of which had the Title Drop and the page quote) about how the mountain is incredibly lethal and the human body is not designed to survive in such extreme conditions for long. The flat-out massacre of characters that occurs throughout the film gives weight to his opinion.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Allegedly somewhat zig-zagged by Monique as Skip claimed in Canada, Eh? above. With Peter, however, she seemed mildly surly from the moment they met, but has gradually come to respect him to where she even kisses him at the end.
  • Determinator: Dying every minute above 24,000 feet won't stop Peter from wanting to save his sister.
  • Dies Wide Open: Tom McLaren, after Vaughn murders him, and Mayama Wick.
  • Dirty Coward: Vaughn, who is not above sacrificing the rest of his climbing party to ensure his own survival.
  • Downer Beginning: The opening climb ends with Peter having to cut the rope they're climbing with, killing his father to save himself and his sister.
  • The Dividual: Cyril and Malcolm Bench, the Syndividual brothers type. They speak in chorus, finish each other's jokes and stay together, though Wick decides to split them when he takes over the rescue party.
  • Dwindling Party: Out of 6 rescuers and 3 trapped people, 2 rescuers and 1 trapped person survive the mission. Four rescuers lost to ultimately save just one person.
  • Enemy Mine: After discovering Vaughn had murdered McLaren and attacking him because of it, Annie briefly forms one with Vaughn in a last-ditch effort to escape the crevasse they're trapped in.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: A realistic and justified version. Peter uses Morse code to try and contact the team. Only one other person at the base camp is shown being able to understand it; and on the mountain, Tom knows that it is Morse code but only Annie responds. It's later revealed that Peter and Annie's father made them learn Morse code, so Peter was probably trying to contact her.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Vaughn, whose last trip up K2 was much-publicized due to the death of several members of the climbing party. It’s revealed that he didn’t survive through any skill of his own, but because he stole the dexamethasone from Wick’s wife, which ultimately resulted in her death. Wick suspects this, and later gets confirmation.
  • Finally Found the Body: The group finds Wick’s wife’s frozen body on their way up the mountain, along with evidence that Vaughn took all her dexamethasone doses (or "dex"), causing her death.
  • Fingore: At one point, the top third of Monique's left ring finger is bent upward at a 45º angle before Peter snaps it back into place.
  • Genius Loci: Wick talks about the K2 as such at one point, saying that it "wanted" Vaughn to return because it hadn't "claimed" him the first time around. His description of how the mountain is a Death World also carries some connotations that he thinks it's an Eldritch Location.
  • Hate Sink: Vaughn exists for someone the audience can despise. Not only is he responsible for more than a few deaths through his incompetence, but he's willing to murder people to save his own skin.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Several. The film opens with Annie and Peter’s father insisting they Cut the Safety Rope so his weight doesn’t pull them all down. Wick does this too, conveniently getting revenge on Vaughn in a Taking You with Me moment. Vaughn also tries to convince an injured Tom to pull one in order to save the dex for himself, though both Tom and Annie call him out for being a selfish bastard.
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Tom. Unsurprising, since he's, you know, freezing to death.
  • Important Haircut: Done with a beard but Wick shaves off all his long facial hair before going on the climb.
  • It's All About Me: Vaughn. By the end of the movie, he has killed two people to try to save himself. Killing Wick's wife comes back to bite him big time, though.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • One of the characters initially argues against sending up a rescue team, claiming that it is foolish to risk six lives to save three. Ultimately, the rescue team lose four members and only succeed in rescuing one of the trapped climbers, making his point very valid.
    • Vaughn argues that Tom is beyond saving and he and Annie should conserve their resources for himself. He's obviously selfish, as shown by how he kills Tom by injecting him with air, and probably wouldn't have been so self-sacrificing if their positions has been reversed, but he has a point.
  • Karmic Death: Vaughn. He killed Wick's wife, and his final lines are his constant screaming in terror as Wick pulls a Taking You with Me Heroic Sacrifice.
  • The Lost Lenore: Wick’s wife, who died during Vaughn’s first expedition up the mountain. It’s later revealed that Vaughn stole the dex from her, essentially murdering her so he could survive.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Vaughn injects Tom with air in order to kill him, trying to exploit the fact that he's already fatally injured to try to pass it off as him dying in his sleep. It's instantly subverted the following morning — the time it takes for Annie to discover Tom's corpse, figure out what Vaughn did, and then attack him in a vengeful rage is probably ten seconds at the most.
  • The Mentor: Montgomery Wick. Subverted. He's the older and more experienced member of the team and this comes in handy for the sake of making it Just in Time to the accident site, but it's showcased from the very first second that he's there for ulterior motives.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Elliot Vaughn has a reputation as an adventurer/adrenaline junkie. Turns out to be a big lie: His first expedition to K2 ended badly due to his incompetence, and he only survived because he stole dexamethasone from a teammate.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Subverted. There are several climbers on the trip and at first Peter and many others at base camp are overjoyed that Annie, Vaughn and Tom survived the avalanche they quickly realise that everyone else is dead. Highlighted by showing Karim devastated that his cousin isn't among the survivors.
  • Mortal Wound Reveal: Tom gets one of these. We know he’s been injured in the avalanche, but not how badly until Annie lifts his shirt up and shows his ribcage has basically been caved in.
  • Never My Fault: Vaughn accuses Tom of being the reason for them getting caught in the storm in the first place on the grounds that Tom was the official team leader, even though Tom kept insisting that they should turn back and Vaughn just kept offering new arguments to support going on until it was too late.
  • Nitro Express: The rescue party hauls some nitroglycerine up the mountain, to help locate the climbers stranded by the avalanche.
  • The One Thing I Don't Hate About You: The Pakistani military officer admits that despite the Indians being their mortal enemies, they make really good tea.
  • Only in It for the Money: The reason Monique goes with the rescue team.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The crew assembled to go rescue the stranded climbers looks like this from the outside. A half-crazy mountain man, two slacker brothers, a woman in it for the money… Subverted in that they’re all actually experienced climbers who know what they’re doing.
  • Sanity Slippage: Wick looks like a case of this from the outside. In reality he’s simply never stopped grieving for his dead wife.
  • Scaling the Summit: The first expedition of people attempted to fully reach the K2 summit (just as a storm was developing) at the ill-advised behest of a rich guy for a publicity stunt while the second group climbed the mountain on a time crunch to find and hopefully rescue the first group after an avalanche traps them in a crevasse.
  • Scenery Porn: It’s set on K2, and was filmed on several mountains, so this is kind of inevitable.
  • Shaming the Mob: Peter does this when trying to put together a team to go rescue the stranded climbers. The Bench brothers are much more blunt about it, basically calling most of the camp a bunch of cowards too busy writing their autobiographies to do any actual climbing.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: The jovial Bench brothers are first divided up by Wick to make sure they don't lose focus on the mission. They are later killed, with one via avalanche and the other via nitroglycerin.
  • Shoot the Dog: Vaughn, not wanting to share the dex with Tom (who's been injured in the avalanche), injects him with air, killing him with a pulmonary embolism.
  • Snow Means Death: Kind of the point of the movie. The mountain is talked constantly as a Place Worse Than Death at best and a full-blown Death World at worst.
  • Suicide Mission: Peter’s rescue attempt is seen as this, which is why he has such a hard time assembling a large enough team to try it.
  • Survivor Guilt: Peter and his sister have this, after the accident that killed their father... because he ordered Peter to cut the rope.
    Wick: You did the right thing to cut the rope. Any good climber would have. If Royce had the knife, he'd have done it himself.
  • Take a Moment to Catch Your Death: Two of the climbers get the message that the nitroglycerin they're carrying should be kept out of the sun... after its been in the sun a long time. They run, get in it the shade, and bury it in the snow. They sigh in relief, and even chuckle when they panic over almost dropping a water bottle. Unbeknownst to them, the nitro container is leaking and slowly reaches the sun. BOOOOOM!
  • Taking You with Me: Wick, to Vaughn. Last we see of them, they fall down a cliff with Wick having made peace with himself and Vaughn is screaming all the way.
  • They Knew the Risks: The excuse given by almost everyone who refuses to go on the rescue mission. Truth in Television to an extent, since anyone willing to go on such a serious climb has to realize they stand a very real chance of dying.
  • Title Drop: Done by Montgomery Wick when talking to Peter about how much of a Death World being several thousand feet in the air on K2 is and how Peter is pretty much ready to drop dead by this point-which he will, if he doesn't accepts Wick's help, even with the ulterior motives Wick has for going for the survivors.
  • Token Religious Teammate: Karim who is a Muslim, and his prayer ritual on the rescue mission gets into Malcolm's nerves.
  • Token Romance: Monique and Peter.
  • What Is One Man's Life In Comparison?: Vaughn tries to pull this on Tom, telling him he’s got no chance so they shouldn’t bother wasting the dex on him. While he might have a point— Tom is severely injured — he’s a pretty cold-hearted bastard about it. Plus, Vaughn only says it because he wants all the dex for himself.
  • Wild Hair: Montgomery Wick looks like a wild man the first time we see him, and his significant hair cut once he decides to go with the team only makes him look crazy... in a "suicidally determined" kind of way.
  • "X" Marks the Spot: Annie and Vaughn manages to mark their location to the rescuers using a flare and a bag of Tom's blood.