In the 2018 documentary Free Solo, moviegoers were introduced to Alex Honnold, an American born and raised in Northern California whose meteoric rise in the rock-climbing world was built upon scaling mountains like the Moonlight Buttress in Utah and the Rostrum in Yosemite National Park. The Oscar-winning film superbly chronicled Honnold’s professional pursuit to free solo up the El Capitan, a feat no one had done before, along with his personal life, including his relationships with his family and girlfriend, Sanni.
The story continues in Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR, which eschews the exciting dual narrative of Alex’s past and present in favor of a basic yet effective presentation of Honnold doing what he does best: Climbing seemingly unclimbable mountains under often grueling conditions. The film, presented in two 30-minute episodes on Oculus TV and directed by Jonathan Griffith (The Alpinist), emphasizes visuals over everything else, employing a sparse score and sporadic narration by Honnold that creates an unforgettable experience that fully utilizes VR technology to capture the beauty and danger of free soloing.
The ordinary in the extraordinary
After a brief montage of Honnold being interviewed by various news outlets and attending the 91st Academy Awards, the first episode begins with the mountain climber at home with Sanni, who is now his wife and pregnant with their first child. They engage in small talk before an interviewer arrives to question him about his free soloing adventures. This narrative device sets up both episodes and clearly outlines what’s ahead: More methodical mountain climbing at often dizzying heights. Yet what this first episode also does is establish Honnold as a “regular” guy who just happens to like doing an extraordinarily dangerous activity. His quaint home life in Las Vegas, personified by cozy outdoor hangouts with friends near a roaring fire, is juxtaposed with his solitary adventures thousands of feet in the air and his intense preparation for each climb.
The primary challenge in the first episode is a doozy: To scale the Cima Piccola mountain in Italy without any rope or support. Griffith presents this as just a part of Honnold’s day. While there’s a brief scene of him preparing by practicing on a makeshift wall in a gym, Honnold takes on this endeavor with very little fanfare or any signs of nervousness. This understated approach makes what he does on the mountain all the more extraordinary. With only a bag of chalk at his side, Honnold overcomes any obstacle in his way, be it strong winds that threaten his progression or a jagged edge that forces him to flip his body around to proceed. It’s at this point that the episode’s most alarming moment occurs as Holland discovers blood on the edge. Whose blood is it and how did it get there? Holland pauses only briefly before shrugging and moving on.
Reaching new heights
The second episode shifts gears a bit. Instead of climbing alone, Honnold is joined by Nicolas Hojac, a Swiss climber who appeared in the first episode and plays a bigger role in this one. Together, the two men take on the Aiguille du Dru and Mont Maudin in the French Alps. In contrast to the brown and orange rock terrain in the first episode, these climbs are defined by jagged gray rocks and blinding white snow. At one point, there’s almost nothing to see as the heavy clouds block all visibility, forcing Honnold to stop until they clear out.
It’s here where Griffith’s VR cinematography shines most. There’s a stunning shot that starts with a wide frame, capturing the sheer size of the Dru. Griffith slowly zooms in and gradually focuses on a small moving speck: Honnold. As Griffith gets closer, he illuminates just how giant of a task the climber is undertaking. It’s a breathtaking sequence that communicates the majesty of the location while also conveying how high Honnold is … and how far he can fall.
With his editor Matthew DeJohn, Griffith also employs an effective method of pulling the viewer in and making them feel they are climbing with Honnold. Griffith will frame a shot with the camera situated near mountain terrain so the viewer feels safe. Situated near land, we can see Honnold solve the puzzle of rock and stone that lies before him. In the next shot, the camera will be floating above Honnold, adopting a god’s eye view that accentuates the depth of field the climber is crossing. The effect is at once suspenseful and dizzying; without any land near us or beneath our feet, we feel a similar element of danger that Honnold must feel as he looks down from the mountain.
A virtual reality that feels all too real
It’s hard to convey just how much the VR adds to this experience. Whether observing Honnold and Hojack plotting out their next adventure in a dark, enclosed hut or showing a time-lapsed transition from day to night atop the French Alps, the film utilizes VR to effectively place you on Honnold’s journey. It’s not simply a travelogue of pretty places and breathtaking vistas; it’s also an immersive chronicle that makes you understand why Honnold does this in the first place. The mountains he climbs are mysteries to solve, fears to overcome, and enemies to conquer. The VR component allows us to be a semi-active observer; we can look away and watch the sun peek through the distance horizon or focus in on a bookshelf that tells us a bit more about Honnold than what is actively being revealed. The VR never intrudes or feels like a gimmick; instead, it adds to the experience and our understanding of Honnold’s passion for climbing.
When Honnold reaches the top of each mountain, he pauses only briefly to take in the view before heading back down. There’s no victory dance, nor is there any fuss made about the accomplishment. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” as they say, and in Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR, the journeys he undertakes are greatly enhanced by the VR technology at his, and Griffith’s, disposal. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that is no longer restricted to brave climbers like Honnold, but is now available to all to enjoy.
Both episodes of Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR are now available on Oculus TV.
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