‘A Crack In The Mountain’ Review: A Nuanced Nature Doc With An Important Message

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A Crack In The Mountain (2022) © Dartmouth Films

Writer and director Alastair Evans delivers an objective, if overlong, analysis of humanity’s impact on one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring locations: the newly discovered Hang Son Doong caves.

★★★★✰

Documentaries that highlight the increasingly worrying effect of our bearing on the environment are hardly anything new. The likes of Seaspiracy and An Inconvenient Truth have long tried to visualise the dreadful impact of big business on our precious natural resources, and draw attention to the countless species damaged by our consumerist culture. Fewer, however, take a more balanced approach. While still inciting a (rightly) pro-environment message, A Crack in the Mountain also explores the possibilities of commercialising nature and the potential benefits it could bring to some of the world’s poorest communities in a truthful, earnest way. 

A Crack in the Mountain centres around Hang Son Doong, a network of enormous, breathtaking caves deep in the jungles of Vietnam, and the group of British explorers who first discovered them. Moreover, it follows the residents nearby Phong Nha, who grapple with the possibilities and challenges that come from the discovery and the potential influx of tourism that could follow. This comes to a head as the controversial Vietnamese government announces plans to build a cable car over Hang Son Doong, a move that could change everything for both the flora and fauna that call it home and the residents of Phong Nha.

The most immediately impressive element of A Crack In The Mountain is how skilfully Evans is able to present a balanced argument. Like a master essayist, the director explores one approach in depth, only to pivot to the opposing argument, giving it equal attention and allowing the audience the opportunity to make their own minds up on this difficult issue, with all the facts to hand. 

The film makes no bones about what a cable car could do to the caves’ natural beauty, a perspective shared through the eyes of privileged city-dwellers who want to keep Vietnam’s newest wonder intact. Evans allows them to speak and debate before turning the lens to Phong Nha locals. After he first tempts the audience to think only of sustainability in terms of moss and rock, the second half of the film quickly shows the adversity that Phong Nha has faced and how Hang Son Doong might hold the key to revitalising the town’s fortunes. This switch gives the film a nuanced, almost impartial tone: a feat not easily achieved in a mode of filmmaking so often driven by a clear agenda.

Though by its end the audience will likely be totally invested in the plight of Hang Son Doong, it gets off to a slightly rocky start by focusing on the team of British explorers. Talk of the British legacy of exploration gives off somewhat concerning colonial vibes, particularly as the film initially centres on a predominately white group discovering an ‘exotic’ location that flirts with notions of orientalism to an uncomfortable degree.

A Crack In The Mountain (2022) © Dartmouth Films

Fortunately, such concerns are quickly alleviated as the film segues into focusing on the perspective of Vietnamese people most intertwined with the caves’ fate. Evans gives vital time to listening to the voices of Phong Nha and why some see the commercialisation of Hang Son Doong as only a good thing, particularly after the brutal impact of the pandemic on the tourism industry. Why the film begins under the façade of a colonial journey of discovery is anyone’s guess, but the finished result, though 20 minutes too long, is ultimately insightful and sensitive. 

Aesthetically, the film is, of course, fortunate enough to boast one stupendous asset: visuals of the caves themselves. Hang Son Doong is a spectacular sight, and the wide shots that characterise it only serve to hammer home how grandiose this amazing location is, especially when the exploration team stand beside it, demonstrating its immense height. Bar a few dodgy tracking shots through the caves which sometimes look like low-cost airline advertisements, the cinematography captures the majesty of the caves with appropriate gusto throughout.

The visuals do, however, raise an important question about the place of the film itself within the debate. Is A Crack In The Mountain actually contributing to the problem of an influx of tourism, particularly as trips into the caves are currently reserved only for the wealthy? While the film raises important issues about wealth inequality, the right to free speech, and the damage caused by consumerist tourism, it lacks any kind of self-reflection or an understanding of how Evans’ work might affect Hang Son Doong in the future. Still, though the lacking self-reflexivity is distracting given the film’s noble attempts to offer as much information on the issue as possible, it doesn’t stop A Crack In The Mountain from being a powerfully affixing watch.

A Crack In The Mountain (2022) © Dartmouth Films

Ironically, by cramming in so much information, the film never really stops for breath. Scenes of quiet contemplation within the caves could have truly cemented their ethereal beauty to the viewer at home, as would a more nuanced soundscape tapping into the sounds of Hang Son Doong. It’s a minor complaint, but one that highlights the speed of the film. As it constantly debates and considers the impact of various people’s perspectives on the caves, it never gives the audience time to fully appreciate them.

Gripes with pacing and an unfocused start aside, A Crack In The Mountain is an intelligent, thought-provoking documentary that never patronises its audience. It presents viewers with all the facts and all the perspectives, packaging them into a gorgeous product that elaborately explores just what these caves mean, or could mean, to so many people.

The Verdict

While A Crack In The Mountain never questions its own intent, it remains a fascinating watch and can at least stand as an educational tool for those unaware of Hang Son Doong’s existence. Though it may ultimately encourage more damaging tourism than it negates, its status as a largely unbiased piece of filmmaking that highlights a current, emotive debate can’t be overlooked or underappreciated.

Words by Nathanial Eker

A Crack In The Mountain will be released in UK and Ireland cinemas this summer. Find a screening here.


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