TV Review: National Geographic’s ‘Explorer: The Last Tepui’ Combines the Suspense of ‘Free Solo’ with a Heartwarming Story of Discovery
The qualities that made Free Solo the gripping documentary that it is are exhibited in National geographicis the first entry in the revived Explorer series. Alex Honnold is back and doing what he does best Explorer: The Last Tepuia one-hour special that begins on Disney+ this earth day. But unlike the Oscar-winning documentary film that made Honnold a household name, in this special the story isn’t really about him.
Dr. Bruce Means is a National Geographic biologist and explorer who has made over thirty trips to study the flora and fauna of Guyana, discovering new species in the rainforest. But there is one area that has proven inaccessible to the seeker, the gargantuan tepuis (tabular mountains) that have never been climbed before. An expert in evolutionary traits, Dr. Means is certain they will discover a unique species of frog atop the tepuis. Getting there seems like an insurmountable hurdle for anyone, let alone a nearly 80-year-old biologist.
Joining the expedition are world-renowned climbers Alex Honnold and Mark Synnott, along with another experienced climbing biologist, Federico Pusani. The special does a good job of setting up the difficulty of accessing the tepui, but the real thrill of the special is the climb itself. Loose rocks add suspense to the climb, as do rooftops without too much grip. Although ropes are present, the climb itself is just as intense as Honnold’s solo free climb on El Capitan. Drone footage regularly gives viewers the massive scale of these walls, returning to bring the whole view back into frame.
Explorer: The Last Tepui sometimes suffers from documenting the trip too much, given the short duration of the special. What could have been a tight, cohesive tale about a daring climb to find a new species is weighed down with travelogue components that likely would have played better had they been released as a miniseries. While it’s nice to get a sense of everything that happened during the expedition, the story seems best served by a different style of editing. A co-production with ABC Newsthere are also a few moments of forced synergy with hello america co-host Michael Strahan who stops the momentum of the special.
The strength of Explorer: The Last Tepui is in the climb itself, but the heart of it is with Dr. Bruce Means. This expedition is the culmination of his life’s work and apparently the last time he will visit South America. There’s a moving moment where he comes to terms with that fact, enjoying the lush surroundings in a moment of peaceful solitude. As for the success of the effort, you will have to watch and see what the team will find when Explorer: The Last Tepui starts broadcasting this Earth Day.
Explorer: The Last Tepui premieres Friday, April 22 on Disney+.