A suspense-filled documentary sees Free Solo’s Alex Honnold and 80-year-old ecologist Bruce Means set out to climb a remote table-top mountain deep in Guyana’s Amazon rainforest
20 April 2022
Renan Ozturk, Drew Pulley, Taylor Rees
THOSE of you who have seen the astounding National Geographic documentary Free Solo will know just how mesmerising it can be to watch a professional climber scale the side of a mountain.
A new documentary, Explorer: The Last Tepui, shares a lot with Free Solo, which won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Not only does it also star rock climber Alex Honnold, it shows him dangling off the side of a mountain in precarious positions that will make your stomach drop in terror.
While his athletic feats are astounding, Honnold isn’t the most captivating character in the film. That honour goes to Bruce Means, who has spent his academic career finding and cataloguing new species throughout South America to prove to the world and its governments that the area is a biodiversity hotspot to be protected at all costs.
In Explorer: The Last Tepui, the 80-year-old ecologist and conservationist is intent on climbing the 300-plus metres to the peak of a remote table-top mountain, or tepui, deep in Guyana’s Amazon rainforest.
Means, Honnold, expedition leader Mark Synnott and a world-class team of climbers have to hike 56 kilometres over 10 days across increasingly treacherous terrain to reach the base of the tepui. This is a very big deal because Means has problems just bending his knees.
Once at the tepui, team members plan to climb to the top and then pull Means up, which will allow him to explore the cliff wall for novel animal and plant species.
Directors Taylor Rees, Renan Ozturk and Drew Pulley do a superb job of setting up the aim of the expedition, as well as the myriad difficulties that could blight it. Fully aware of the extraordinary visuals and fascinating characters that they have at their disposal, they take a step back and allow the majesty of the rainforest to take over, while giving the highly intelligent and passionate specialists room to describe what makes it so special.
Some of the shots that Matthew Irving, director of photography, captures are awe-inspiring, and the directors also provide plenty of long, lingering views of mountains, creatures, streams and waterfalls, which allow viewers to soak up the natural beauty, listen to the sounds of the animals and get lost in the frame.
What makes the documentary so riveting is Means’s detailed explanations as he walks with the team through the forest, which is dense with trees and vegetation. The ecologist’s positive and self-deprecating nature makes him instantly likeable, while his endless knowledge and devotion to nature and science are so contagious that they will make viewers of all ages appreciate the diversity of our environment.
His efforts are made all the more valiant by his admission that if he makes it to the summit, it will be the culmination of his life’s work. Unsurprisingly, because of the unforgiving terrain they must cross to reach the tepui, various major obstacles soon get in the way of the party. Means’s strain at holding up the expedition because of his age and health doesn’t just make him more lovable, it injects real suspense into the documentary, which will debut on Disney+ on 22 April for Earth Day.
The constantly changing viewpoints and potentially life-threatening issues ensure that Explorer: The Last Tepui remains compelling to the very last frame. Even though it is just 54 minutes long, you will still feel utterly exhausted, as well as inspired, by the time it is over.
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