I’m an adventurous, outdoorsy guy, often in possession of more grit than grey matter, which is why during the sweeping opening 15 minutes or so of Everest, director Baltasar Kormakur’s retelling of the real life events surrounding a calamitous 1996 expedition to summit the titular mountain, I thought to myself that one day if I should have the financial independence, I wouldn’t mind attempting the feat of climbing to the top of the world. By the end of the film I was thinking the exact opposite though.
Well, that is when I actually could think, being forced to jump-start my senses again after having been pummeled by an avalanche of raw human emotion for two hours. Everest – especially in its dramatic final 40 minutes – is a contradictory affair, but in a good way. Both a celebration of the human spirit and wholesale gut-wrenching, it leaves you marveling at nature as much as you’re struck in fearsome awe of its ruthless and indiscriminate destructive power. It’s spectacle steeped in tragedy, wrapped up in arresting cinematography, and it’s damn good.
As if he needed to create a super team to take on the world’s highest peak, Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns) assembled a who’s-who of acting powerhouses for this film. Jason Clarke leads as Rob Hall, the mountaineering pioneer who invented the market for guided group expeditions up Everest, while Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly and Naoko Mori star as the main customers of his latest trip, all on the mountain for their very own reasons.
Accompanying Hall is his right hand man Harold, played by Martin Henderson, while Hall leaves behind in New Zealand his pregnant wife Jan, played by Kiera Knightley. On the mountain though, his crew has their own “marm” in Emily Watson’s Helen. Jake Gyllenhaal also stars as Scott Fisher, a rambunctious rival expedition leader who doesn’t believe in Hall’s more conservative hand-holding approach. Bringing up the rear in smaller but no less important roles are Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Debicki and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson.
That is one seriously stacked cast and there really isn’t a single weak link among them as they all turn in (pun not intended) rock-solid performances, but most definitely peaking (okay, maybe the pun is intended now) among them is Clarke, Hawkes, Brolin, Watts and Knightley who all take turns to pelt your heart through a gauntlet of emotions as what should have been an easy summit turns into blackest disaster.
Despite the meticulous planning that preceded the events in March 1996, everything that could go wrong did go wrong at the worst possible time when the two expeditions were caught in one of the worst storms in recent memory midway through their ascent. When the snow eventually settled, it would be the deadliest day ever on the mountain until a 2014 avalanche claimed 16 lives (which coincidentally occurred while the film was shooting there, though none of the cast and crew were affected by it).
With half a dozen different published accounts of what transpired on that treacherous day at 29 000 ft, screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and William Nicholson’s (Gladiator, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom) script acts as a conglomeration and dramatization of events, taking some creative liberties here and there (it draws its main inspiration from ‘Into Thin Air”, the bestselling novelization written by Michael Kelly’s Outdoor Magazine writer Jon Krakauer). Fidelity to the facts is not its biggest problem though, as while the script does a fantastic job of keeping the audience engaged to the macro spectacle of the disaster through even pacing and tight scene establishment, it barely sketches out most of its characters well enough on the micro level.
Some, like Brolin’s brash Texan Beck Weathers and Hawkes’ everyman hero Doug Hansen, get a bit more depth – and even then that depth is more slight gully than vertiginous crevasse – but others are left to be nothing more than a name, a beard and a pair of desperate eyes peering out from under a frozen-stiff thermal jacket. This is more than likely the cost of such an extended cast though. It also only fleetingly delves into the psychology of why any human being would willingly want to drag themselves up to the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747, literally slowly dying with every excruciating step they take.
When the script does zero in its focus on its cast though, as it does on Hall and his wife communicating via satellite phone in the midst of the disaster, or Weathers’ superhuman effort to keep up with his climbing peers, it also does tend to feel just a tad blatantly emotionally manipulative. But it’s a testament to the stellar, harrowing performances from the actors though that the taint of melodrama is kept to a minimum. I would still advise though that even the chilliest of moviegoers pack in some extras tissues.
Also maybe a barf bag if you’re prone to vertigo as Komakur captures the dizzying drops and stomach-inverting reaches of Everest in sweeping National Geographic-esque cinematography that makes full use of IMAX’s dwarfing screen real estate and spine-rattling sound. With CGI snowstorms being violently whipped around you in 3D as it assaults the characters on-screen like a ballistic barrage, you will be fully transported to that alien landscape of eerie ice columns, coldly unforgiving rock and deadly snow-slick precipices, your delicate equilibrium be damned.
And it’s that muscular, physical sensation of being caught up in this unthinkable event transpiring below, on the side and on top of this hellishly imposing geographical titan that Komakur’s film nails so perfectly. From a pure technical level alone, Everest is sure to have its name mentioned a few times come awards season. But it has much more to offer than just some utterly convincing digital smoke and mirrors though. This is a blockbuster human drama writ on a gargantuan scale, and fraught with wholly believable peril. It may show the occasional crack in its icy facade, but Everest gets two frostbitten thumbs up from me!
Last Updated: September 17, 2015