DirectorElizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Release Date(s)2018 (August 13, 2019)
Studio(s)Little Monster Films/Itinerant Media/National Geographic Documentary Films (Capelight Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: This is a German 4K UHD release, compatible with all regions, but be aware that the included Blu-ray and DVD are region locked and the DVD is formatted for PAL.]
Every once in a very great while, you see a perfect thing happen—a thing so daring, so insane that it seemed completely impossible before it happened and it remains every bit as impossible the moment afterwards too. Free Solo, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature earlier this year, is a film that captures just such an event, an attempt to free solo climb the 3,000 foot granite face of Yosemite’s El Capitan in June of 2017. No rock formation on Earth is more imposing or poses a greater challenge to a free solo climber. Free soloing, or climbing without ropes and safety gear, is so dangerous that less than 1% of all climbers even pursue it. Many of those who do end up dying. But Alex Honnold has been obsessed with free solo climbing—and with El Cap in particular—for most of his career. It’s a challenge so daunting, fellow climber Tommy Caldwell describes it like this: “Imagine an Olympic gold medal level athletic achievement where, if you don’t get that gold medal, you die.” But despite the danger, Honnold simply can’t conceive of not trying to do it.
As impressive as the climb itself is, Honnold’s personal journey is fascinating too. The film takes you through his life from a nerdy loner kid whose father died when he was ten, to a young man pursuing his love of climbing while living in a van, to the beginnings of love, stability, and setting down roots. Alex’s altruism is inspiring; as he’s traveled around the planet climbing, he’s seen people in need and has found a way to channel his money into a foundation to help them. What really works about all this is that, as you meet the people who care about Alex, you can’t help investing your own feelings too. And that makes what he’s trying to so frightening. When it comes to the climb itself, Alex’s best friends help him to prepare for El Cap and are part of the crew hoping to film it. Some of the best climbers in the world themselves, it’s by listening to them that you begin to understand just now insane this project is—you can see them getting freaked out as Alex gets closer to attempting it. When he finally does, the 4K photography is so immediate and breathtaking—putting you right on the rock face with Alex thousands of feet above the ground—that you’ll feel a real sense of danger while viewing. My own palms were sweating for most of this film’s 100-minute runtime. Hell, my feet were sweating too.
Free Solo was shot digitally (I believe in YCC 4:2:2 10-bit) in native 4K using Blackmagic URSA and Canon C300 Mark II cameras (the latter has a CMOS sensor equivalent to Super 35 film). It was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio and released that way in both regular and IMAX theaters. For this Ultra HD release, Capelight has given the film an extremely modest high dynamic range grade (HDR10) that deepens the blacks just a bit. Highlights aren’t as bright looking as they are on most other UHD titles, but the expanded contrast does result in a more natural image. The 10-bit color space helps as well, resulting in added dimension and nicely accurate hues and skin tones. This image quite good, just don’t expect a vibrant eye-candy visual experience.
Lossless audio is available in both English and German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional German subtitles. German is the default, so you’ll need to switch to English in the menus before you start the film, then turn off the German subtitles that come on by default as well. The mix is pretty standard for a documentary film. It’s mostly dialogue-driven, but the surrounds are used for music and light atmospherics (wind, bird calls, etc). Dialogue is clean, and the mix is full sounding with a bit of heft in the low end.
Capelight’s 4K disc itself includes the following extras (all in HD):
- Interview with Alex Honnold (6:25)
- Interview with Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (1:59)
- What If He Falls? (10:05)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:24)
It’s not much in the way of bonus content, but the What If He Falls? featurette in particular is fascinating, as the filmmakers (again, many of whom are Honnold’s friends) describe how they had to mentally prepare themselves to film his attempt. Is it even ethical to do so? Would they be able to live with themselves if he died? And how can they make sure their effort to document the climb doesn’t interfere with it? The package also includes the film on both Blu-ray and DVD, with the same extras, though note that both are region locked (and the DVD is PAL format). The packaging itself is a Mediabook case, with a 24-page booklet featuring liner notes, an interview, and behind-the-scenes photos.
What Alex Honnold ultimately accomplishes has rightly been called “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” Free Solo is an achievement in its own right, a documentary as inspiring as it is gripping. I can’t recommend the film more highly. It’s effective, elegant in its simplicity, and a film that will leave you in awe. Capelight’s 4K Ultra HD is definitely the best choice for watching it at home on disc and is well worth importing if you’re a fan.
- Bill Hunt