Hollywood has a tough time bringing adventure sports to life. From Gidget to the latest xXx installment, the same activities that ratchet up our adrenaline—surfing, snowboarding, mountain biking, even whitewater paddling—have consistently fallen flat on the silver screen, lacking the authenticity to earn praise from core athletes and failing to bring enough stoke to engage casual viewers. A double whammy of suckage.
Amid the myriad action-sport flameouts, rock climbing has quietly enjoyed a period of sustained intrigue and decent treatment among filmmakers. (Our guess: It has something to do with a convenient metaphor of self-reliance, ingenuity, and overcoming adversity.) To rank the best scenes as objectively as possible, we established some criteria. First, we define “climbing” in this context as a human being using hands and feet to vertically ascend a wall. This is important because it excludes great cinematic moments like Andre the Giant hand-over-handing three people up the Cliffs of Insanity via rope in The Princess Bride, Mulan leveraging her way up a tall pole, or any instance of hanging-on-for-dear-life-by-a-finger, à la Mufasa in The Lion King or Sara’s escape in A Little Princess.
We then judged the scene based on four categories, each with a maximum value of ten points, so a perfect score would be 40/40.
- Objective: What is the character trying to achieve through climbing, and how does that advance the plot of the film?
- Accuracy: Could this feat actually occur? Is the climber’s technique true to form?
- Artistry: Is the scene aesthetically appealing? What flourishes and style are the filmmakers bringing to the table?
- Overall Fun Quotient: Putting accuracy, artistry, and purpose aside—does it get the stoke meter high?
Here we go.
#10. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Objective: Jake, an orphan of the Outback, is moved to single-handedly rescue a giant, rare golden eagle ensnared in a poacher’s trap on top of a towering canyon. 8/10
Accuracy: Ever the independent thinker, Jake finds himself free-soloing a several-thousand-foot sandstone monolith in desert boots while shouldering a knapsack. He’s no more than eight years old, it appears to be summer, it’s windy, and he doesn’t even have a Nalgene. Come on. 1/10
Artistry: The climb itself was apparently so uneventful that, shortly after we see Jake set out, the director slow-fades to the boy pulling over the lip, shrubs barely visible on the ground thousands of feet below. It’s like we’re meant to take this world-record ascent for granted. 2/10
Fun Quotient: Surely every one of us has imagined scaling a cliff in this fashion—look up, start climbing. And the fact that Jake is thrown off the cliff when the eagle he’s rescuing thrashes him with its mighty wing—and is then saved by said eagle in midair—is slightly wonderful. 3/10
#9. Wonder Woman (2017)
Objective: Amazonian princess Diana sneaks outside the castle wall one evening, determined to retrieve the magic sword and shield that can break the evil spell cast on humanity by Ares, God of War. In reality, this means stopping World War I. 10/10
Accuracy: Diana realizes she can pound her fists into the side of a sheer stone turret. It’s ascension by aggravated assault—creating her own holds via destruction and force. So much for leaving no trace. 2/10
Artistry: It’s your typical CGI fest here. Probably the only thing that’s real is actress Gal Gadot’s face. 2/10
Fun Quotient: Just another night in the life of a nonflying superhero putting her brawn and brains to use in the most entertaining way possible. How many climbers among us wouldn’t show off if we had this kind of strength? 5/10
#8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Objective: Bruce, nearly immobilized by a broken back, must get out of a subterranean prison that he’s been trapped in for months. But how? Should he make it out of the pit and into the faraway desert above, it’s a quick jaunt back to Gotham City, which he must save from a fascist dictator armed with a nuclear bomb. 9/10
Accuracy: The crux move to get out of the 200-foot-deep well involves reaching a protruding stone ledge—once you’re there, you’re apparently home free to the lip of the pit. Instead of executing a simple traverse, Bruce performs a horizontal dyno, leaping headfirst. Though more dramatic, it’s also an absurd maneuver given the circumstances: He’s tied into a static rope around his waist and facing a 50-foot whipper. Falling once—and he falls several times—would almost certainly rebreak his back. To tighten his focus, Bruce eventually decides to forgo the rope and solo it. 2/10
Artistry: Christopher Nolan thrives on obfuscation and sleight-of-camera trickery, and like all his films, you have to suspend a significant amount of disbelief to allow yourself to be entertained. There’s a lot we’re not shown in this training/climbing montage, and instead of simplifying the sequence of events, it muddles them. 3/10
Fun Quotient: A broken Batman, wearing a dirty bathrobe, raises himself from the depths while a small legion of deranged miscreants chants and cheers for him below. 6/10
#7. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
Objective: The only way to stop a terrorist from making off with the nuclear launch codes is to strap on a pair of electric suction cups—gecko gloves, basically—and scale a glass skyscraper in Dubai. 6/10
Accuracy: Well, no. I mean, it’s Mission Impossible. That said, the notion of scaling the outside of a skyscraper is very real and has been completed numerous times. 3/10
Artistry: I don’t know when you last watched this scene, but watch it again. It’s painstakingly patient and omniscient at the start, effectively putting us inside Mr. Cruise’s frame of mind. When we step out on the wall with him, we’re allowed only a passing glance at the beautifully manicured ground far below. The focus is, as it should be, on the task at hand. 7/10
Fun Quotient: You can’t watch a Tom Cruise movie without being reminded that he does just about all of his own stunts. It’s a fun breach of the fourth wall that we all look forward to witnessing in the theater, as if the actor is endangering himself for our sadistic pleasure. Plus, have you ever seen something like this in a movie before? 10/10
#6. K2 (1991)
Objective: It’s the deadliest mountain on earth, but not threatening enough to stave off four billionaire-backed weekend warriors determined to make the summit. Existential clarity and spiritual redemption ensue. 6/10
Accuracy: Our brightly colored climbers ascend cracks, turn ice screws, clip carabiners, check knots, stomp crampons, and, of course, drive ice axes. They also yell at each other a lot, underscoring the simple fact that communication is key. 9/10
Artistry: It’s a killer mixed-climbing montage set to an absolutely bitchin’ guitar solo. It’s also spearheaded by a grimacing, grumbling Michael Biehn, who was coming off a quintet of perfect action films in The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and Navy Seals. 7/10
Fun Quotient: Scenes like this makes K2 a niche cult sleeper of the 1990s. Crack a beer and watch it with your climbing buddies on a rest day. 5/10
#5. Vertical Limit (2000)
Objective: A casual multipitch simulclimb goes horribly awry for a family of three when two climbers above them zipper out of the wall and close-line the family patriarch with their rope, ripping father, son, and daughter off the wall. Now all three dangle from a single cam that is sliding downward under their collective weight. Can it hold all three of them? Or must there be a sacrifice? 8/10
Accuracy: I’ve sucked it up and rewatched this gnarly sequence several times. The climbers call out belays, fix anchors, place cams, load grigris, and one even blows chalk off his fingertips (saucy!). But it’s tough to follow the sequence, which makes scoping technical flaws difficult. In terms of lapses in judgment, you shouldn’t be following so closely behind another climbing party, and it’s pretty awful for a father to berate his son into a mercy killing, but that’s not something most of us have to deal with. 7/10
Artistry: While bolstered by less-than-magnificent special effects, the drama here plays out on the faces of the family members and with the inevitable slide of the last remaining cam. It’s brutal but effective. 6/10
Fun Quotient: Horror can be fun. 7/10
#4. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Objective: Long before Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan, Yosemite Valley was the playground of Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. It’s not clear why Kirk (William Shatner) is climbing El Cap until he drops a not-very-subtle nod to George Mallory, informing Spock (Leonard Nimoy, floating next to Kirk in jet boots) that he’s tempting fate “because it’s there.” Good enough for us. 9/10
Accuracy: Shatner is rocking real climbing shoes and Hammer pants, and he’s doubled by California climbing legend Bob Gaines, who showcases some legit hand and body stemming and generally does justice to the specifics of Yosemite crack-climbing techniques. However, Shatner doesn’t quite have the disposition of a man clinging to life on the side of a giant granite slab. 7/10
Artistry: Nothing fancy here, but they do appear to actually be in Yosemite Valley, which is a step in the right direction. When Shatner slips and plummets hundreds of feet toward the treetops below, we get a moment of pure 1980s special effects wizardry. 5/10
Fun Quotient: The scene is kind of pointless—it’s not part of the plot, a subplot, or a key to understanding anything about Kirk as a character. But it does provide a novel venue for the flirtatious bickering between Spock and Kirk that every Star Trek fan loves. 8/10
#3. Point Break (2015)
Objective: At a pivotal juncture, frenemies Johnny Utah and Bodhi (mononym) strap on their sticky shoes and perform a climbing feat for the ages: a mano-a-mano chase up a juggy, slippery-wet wall alongside a 3,200-foot-high waterfall. Why, you ask? Well, Johnny wants to talk to Bodhi, and Bodhi is trying to avoid talking to Johnny. (There’s also a subplot about completing the “8 Ozaki Ordeals,” of which soloing the waterfall is one, but it’s stupid.) 1/10
Accuracy: It’s basically a highball competition—no time for ropes or gear. It’s a prolonged sequence of realish climbing, advised and executed by oft-shirtless rock guru Chris Sharma and solo stud Peter Croft and shot on location in Angel Falls, Venezuela. 10/10
Artistry: The filmmakers were dedicated to showcasing the technical elements of certain adventure sports, from wingsuiting to rock climbing, and finding absurd ways to weave these activities into the plot. But once we’re on the wall, it’s a climbing feast: close-ups of one-finger-pocketing and micro-crimping, and aerial cinematography of dudes in Evolv rock shoes throwing heel hooks and dynoing. 10/10
Fun Quotient: If you like American Ninja Warrior—and we all do—then you can appreciate the attempt to bring a fantastic feat like this to movie theaters. The shots are beautiful, and the overall spectacle entertains climbers and nonclimbers alike. 10/10
#2. Cliffhanger (1993)
Objective: Emotionally damaged rescue ranger Sylvester Stallone is trying to leave his mountaineer life behind. But alas, when his ex-girlfriend pleads with him to assist in the rescue of five climbers stranded in a snowstorm, the begrudging hero answers the call. The mission goes haywire when Sly finds himself entangled in a nefarious high-stakes robbery plot to recover three large cash-filled cases strewn across the snowy slopes. 8/10
Accuracy: There’s so much climbing in this movie that it’s hard to focus on just one moment, and each depiction of the craft is a bizarre mix of techy realism and pure fantasy. For instance, in the opening scene we get Sly free-soloing his way to top of a chossy spire. His busting of a sweet heel hook from a dead hang might distract you from the fact that he’s carrying a rack of nuts and pitons, as if he were trad climbing. He brought all the gear to set a rope…but then forgot the rope. 7/10
Artistry: The climbing magic present throughout this film is at times so strange and surreal that it has bewildered climbers across the internets for decades. Exhibit A: There are entire webpages, forum threads, and YouTube videos dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind Sly’s notorious “bolt gun,” a handheld pistol that injects eight-inch steel rods directly into solid granite. That’s what’s so great about Cliffhanger: The parallel reality it portrays is both familiar enough and odd enough to make us wonder what’s possible in our world. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is. 10/10
Fun Quotient: Director Renny Harlin, purveyor of on-camera helicopter crashes, might have had the most fun of any action filmmaker who worked in the 1990s. Anything that doesn’t fit neatly into his vision—plot, nuance, character development, physics—gets subverted or scrapped for the greater cause of awe and entertainment. Why let reality get in the way of a great romp? 11/10
#1. Mission Impossible II (2000)
Objective: Fade in—we’re traveling through red-rock chimneys in southeastern Utah. The camera settles on a lone man in a black tank top. He has long black hair, no rope, and is clinging to a 3,000-foot chimney. Exhausted, he hauls himself onto a tiny ledge and tucks both knees beneath an overhang for a well-deserved two-handed rest. Leaning back, he gazes up, surveying the crag above. What would compel a man such as this? We soon learn: vacation. Always a worthy objective. 10/10
Accuracy: A near-fateful foot slip, an insane horizontal dyno, a full-body spin into an unprecedented back-to-the-wall two-hand dead hang, all while free-soloing—this scene has it all. The feasibility of this nutso feat has been given new life by the existence of Alex Honnold. (Bonus: Cruise’s stunt double on the climb was Yosemite bouldering pioneer Ron Kauk.) 9/10
Artistry: Near the end of this scene, you can practically hear the studio shouting over director John Woo’s shoulder: “Cue the Limp Bizkit guitar lick!” It reminds us all of a time in our lives we’d rather forget. 10/10
Fun Quotient: Capped off by an encounter with a pair of rocket-propelled, carbon-fiber, self-detonating Oakley sunglasses preprogrammed with his next mission (should he choose to accept it), the five-minute opening sequence for this film is flawless. 10/10