Skywalkers: A Love Story Review: This Documentary Wants To Be This Year's Free Solo, But It's Missing A Crucial Component [Sundance]  

Watching 2018's "Free Solo," the Oscar-winning documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold's daring attempt to scale Yosemite's El Capitan with no ropes to protect him from potentially falling, was such a visceral viewing experience, it caused my palms to sweat.

The same thing can be said of "Skywalkers: A Love Story," director Jeff Zimbalist's new documentary about Angela Nikolau and Ivan "Vanya" Beerkus, two Russian "rooftoppers" who have become famous for breaking into skyscrapers, climbing to their highest possible points, and taking photos and videos for social media. The two begin the film as rivals, but team up to work together and eventually ... well, the phrase "fall for each other" carries a heavy connotation given their particular niche, so let's just say their dynamic changes as they survive some ridiculously dangerous climbs and come to love one another. Armed with a phalanx of GoPros, cameras, and drones, Vanya is the straightforward tactician, while Angela, whose parents were circus performers, brings an artsier touch to their "work," performing acrobatics and gymnastic poses mere inches from precipitous drops. They balance each other out.

If you're scared of heights, this film is basically your worst nightmare.

The pivotal way Skywalkers differs from Free Solo

A sizable chunk of "Free Solo" features those filmmakers debating whether or not they should even be up on the mountain capturing shots of Alex Honnold attempting his record-breaking feat, since their very presence might cause him to slip or take a chance that he might not otherwise take. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin also explicitly acknowledge that not only might Alex fall during his climb, but if he does, they and their team of camera operators will be the ones capturing it on camera — a traumatic experience that would obviously leave an unthinkable and lasting impact on them for the rest of their lives. I found that aspect of "Free Solo," people genuinely contending with the consequences of the climb not only on the subject, but on others, to be as essential as the climbing footage itself. It brought a relatability and humanity to the narrative.

"Skywalkers: A Love Story" seems to be on the opposite end of the ethical spectrum. While it's ostensibly a love story about similar feats of humanity, is not truly interested in humanity — it's only interested in its two subjects and doesn't care about anyone else.

Not once do Vanya and Angela stop to think about the very real fact that they could kill innocent civilians if they fell during one of their climbs. Even if they managed to avoid landing on someone and killing them after plunging thousands of feet through the air, they never think about the life-ruining memory they would inflict on that innocent civilian if they were to splat all over the ground near an unsuspecting person who is just going about their business. They spend the movie spouting maxims like, "Our full potential is on the other side of fear," "limits only exist in our mind," and "this isn't an adrenaline addiction, it's a commitment to self-growth," but frankly, I think that's total bullsh*t. It's tough to swallow their philosophizing when they're clearly doing this for social media clout. These empty platitudes are justification for them to continue doing what they're doing, and emblematic of a disturbing "me first" mentality that seems to be more and more common these days.

For a second, it seems like Zimbalist might meaningfully confront the specter of death and the protagonists' relationship to it. At one point, Angela watches shocking videos of two rooftoppers falling from great heights, and late in the movie, she learns that almost every member of her old rooftopping crew has died in scenarios gone awry. Her body physically reacts to that news even if she tries to maintain a cool facade; she temporarily seizes up on her next climb with Vanya, but both she and the film move on from there to continue their mission without a serious moment of reckoning.

But the footage is undeniable

And yet, it's inarguable that the footage they capture is stunning — sometimes even more than what we saw in "Free Solo." Watching Alex Honnold scale a mountain is obviously impressive (and his unassisted climbs were much taller than the ones depicted here), but there's something about seeing Vanya and Angela climbing above cityscapes that is more immediately understandable; as someone who has spent more time walking through cities than climbing mountains, it's easier to look up in my mind's eye and comprehend the heights they're scaling, whereas mountains are less relatable because it somehow seems harder to judge distances in nature.

So do the ends justify the means? Each viewer will need to grapple with that question for themselves. Despite my qualms with the subjects and their methods, I must admit I ultimately found the film to be pretty undeniable. The couple's love story, which is threatened due to the emotional and financial pressures of losing their sponsors during the pandemic, is intimately chronicled; the two of them have genuine chemistry, and Zimbalist and his editors do a nice job of tracing the ups and downs of their relationship and leaning on the idea that trust, while highly important for every relationship, is especially imperative for these two, who regularly put their lives in each other's hands. More effective, though, is the movie's reliance on the tropes of a heist film to build up to Vanya and Angela's biggest climb yet: Merdeka, a 118-story behemoth rising out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Watching them attempt to scout their location and then build and try to execute their plan is unquestionably thrilling — especially when things begin to go wrong.

Some of the voiceover narration feels disappointingly formulaic, primarily at the end, which builds to a saccharine conclusion that threatens to abandon whatever authenticity the film garnered until that point. Still, "Skywalkers: A Love Story" is a dizzying and dazzling look at a hyper-niche culture that delivers some of the most jaw-dropping real-life footage you'll likely ever see.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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