The image of mountain climbers trekking knowingly past the dead bodies of those who came and failed before them is a haunting one. That makes sense when the scene is captured in a documentary or photographs – these are the bodies of real people, left where they fell and barely given a glimpse by those more focused on hiking up a giant hill – but it turns out the effect is almost as strong in a narrative context. That idea, that the time, money, and desire expended towards climbing the mountain in front of you is more valuable than the return of someone else’s loved one’s body, is at the core of these climbers’ mentality. It’s what drives them, and in no small way, it’s at least partially responsible for the real-world tragedy on Mt. Everest over two days in May of 1996.
Climbing the world’s tallest mountain has become something of a money-maker thanks to the creation of guided tours that promise to get you up to the summit and back down again safely, but the small window of agreeable weather atop Everest means a crowded mountainside. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) heads up Adventure Consultants and is known for his prioritizing of safety first, and Mountain Madness, led by the far more carefree Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), is one of his main competitors. Both groups, along with several others, aim for the same ascent date, but congestion, confusion, and bad weather combine resulting in the deadliest day the mountain had seen up to that point.
Director Baltasar Kormákur’s (2 Guns, Contraband) new film, Everest, brings to the big screen a true story that’s already been told numerous times on the page and onscreen. The most famous incarnation is Jon Krakauer’s best-selling account, Into Thin Air. Krakauer (Michael Kelly) was a member of Hall’s team, there on assignment for Outside magazine, but while his take is the most well-known it’s only one of several accounts of what went wrong. The ultimate truth rests with the climbers who failed to return that day, and that uncertainty as to who or what was to blame leaves Everest something of a majestic mirage.
The film opens with Hall saying goodbye to his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) and promising to be home in time for the birth. (The poor guy never stood a chance.) From there we meet the climbers as they make their way to Nepal and proceed to base camp, and while there were dozens of men and women there our focus is on the handful most affected by what’s to come. In addition to those mentioned above we meet a few of Rob’s clients – Doug (John Hawkes) is a working class guy hoping to prove something to others, Beck (Josh Brolin) is far more well off but hoping to prove something to himself, and Yasuko (Naoko Mori) is aiming to be the oldest woman to summit Everest.
Surface details are shared with the clear hope that they’ll make later events more affecting, but we never get to really know any of the numerous climbers. Krakauer asks the eternal question at one point – Why climb such a dangerous mountain? – but there’s little answer or explanation in reply beyond the expected “because it’s there,” and that lack of clear motivation is applicable to the film itself as well.
Quite a bit of time is spent in the build-up to May 10th, but while most of it is minimal character work Kormákur frequently and wisely takes time to showcase the majesty of the great outdoors. The arduous effort required to even reach base camp is captured in wide visuals of inclement weather and rough terrain, but we also see it starting early on the faces of the climbers. Outside of Rob Hall, the “every man for himself” mentality is established early on, but while it’s clear that mistakes were made and people acted selfishly before, after, and during the storm the film refuses to commit to pointing a finger.
There are terror-inducing sequences here, although not as many as you might expect, but their fist-clenching effect is magnified against a backdrop of beautiful scenery and the constant threat of imminent death. The mountain’s immense size is well represented, and the film does a good job with the geography ensuring that while the climbers are getting lost we always know where we are. The whipping wind and biting cold occasionally feel as if they’ve escaped the screen to reach an icy grip towards your theater seat, and if you’re going to see it, it’s worth seeing in IMAX 3D.
Everest exists simply as a beautiful tragedy. Gorgeous visuals, an immensely talented cast, and a handful of truly harrowing moments combine to create an at times compelling feature guaranteed to leave you utterly disinterested in ever climbing Mt. Everest. It has no interest in examining the actions and inactions that created this tragedy though, and instead, like climbers trudging past the frozen dead at their feet, it wants only to reach the top and get back down again.
The Upside: Captures some affecting moments of loss; attractive photography; strong cast; some harrowing moments; looks beautiful in IMAX 3D; Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Sam Worthington, and Emily Watson do strong work with very little screen time
The Downside: Fails to capture some of the individual impacts; little attempt to answer why (climb *or* make the movie); feels like scenes/explanations are missing