With its jaw-dropping special effects, dizzying 3D and stunning IMAX-friendly vistas, Everest may be one of the most immersive and visually striking films of 2015. Yet, anyone heading into this harrowing survivalist drama expecting a rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing mountaineering epic is bound to receive a rude awakening. Although spectacle and heroism do factor in Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s film, they play second fiddle to verisimilitude and tragedy. Tonally, Everest is more 127 Hours than Cliffhanger. More than anything, this gripping fact-based retelling of one of the most famous expeditions to climb Earth’s highest peak is a sobering lesson about man’s hubris.
Even before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to successfully climb Mount Everest in 1953, man had been obsessed with scaling Earth’s highest point. When asked why he wanted to climb the mountain, doomed climber George Mallory famously stated, “Because it’s there.” By the late 80’s, climbing the peak had become a booming business—especially among filthy-rich playboys and businessmen desperate to find some meaning in their otherwise soulless lives. For the first time, amateurs (with at least some form of climbing experience) would be able to climb Everest with the help of experienced guides and Sherpas for a base price of $65,000.
By the mid-90’s, business had become so lucrative that at least 20 tour companies were operating on the mountain at the same time – thus causing traffic jams that wasted time and jeopardized people’s lives. One such company is Adventure Consultants – a New Zealand-based company owned and operated by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). Rob, we’re told, was among the first to commercialize the climb of Everest, having scaled the peak a record five times. Rob isn’t just the best but as we soon learn, patient, likable, and in the words of rival expedition leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), “the best hand-holder on the mountain.”
For the 1996 climbing season, Rob is accompanied on the Everest expedition by fellow Adventure Consultants mountain guides Andy Harris (Martin Henderson) and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington) as well as base camp directors Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki). Their clients include macho Texas millionaire and Bob Dole supporter Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), mild-mannered postal worker Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) whose trip has been funded by his hometown after failing to make the peak on his first attempt a year earlier. There’s also Yasuko Namba (Naoki Mori), a Japanese woman who has already scaled six of the seven peaks on the famed Seven Summits list.
Their final client is journalist Jon Krakauer (House of Cards’ Michael Kelly), who joins the expedition mostly to write a story for Outside magazine – something Rob expects will lead to big business and exposure. The fact that Krakauer chose Rob’s Adventure Consultants over American rival Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness becomes a source of bitterness between the two men. Interestingly enough, although Krakauer was on assignment to write an article for Outside magazine, his experiences during this expedition ended up being chronicled in his best-selling non-fiction novel Into Thin Air. Eventually, Rob and Fischer decide to put their differences aside and join forces in order to beat the bottle-necking that was causing delays on the mountain. But when an unexpected and deadly blizzard hits the peak, trapping the expedition, Rob, Scott and company are forced to seek alternate measures to make it off the mountain alive.
One of the most satisfying aspects of Kormákur’s film is how meticulous and unsentimental it is in its depiction of the disaster (and the events leading up to it) that struck the expeditions during that fateful season in 1996. Moreover, I was surprised how little attention it pays to Hollywood conventionality in that there aren’t any good guys or bad guys here. The characters are all just driven individuals who got gutted by bad luck and circumstance. Even deaths are treated as afterthoughts instead of over-the-top emotional gut punches accompanied by a swelling soundtrack. This is a huge departure from Kormákur’s previous films (among them Contraband and 2 Guns). Everest is by far the filmmaker’s most confident and assured piece of Hollywood filmmaking to date.
Equally impressive is the pacing of the script. Instead of getting right into the action, screenwriters William Nicholson (Gladiator, Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) take their time in setting up the characters, the stakes, the problems faced by the groups, and especially the logistical details of scaling Everest. We learn early on during a meet-and-greet session that human beings aren’t meant to survive at the cruising altitude of a 747 – and how our bodies are already dying as we scale the mountain. Climbing Everest doesn’t just take physical strength but mental preparedness as well. We learn how non-professional climbers have to assimilate their bodies to the air (or lack of it) up on the mountain in order to prep themselves for the high altitudes they will eventually scale. We also get a lesson on how indispensable oxygen tanks are during climbing and how even the most experienced climber is no match for the wrath of Mother Nature.
Everest may have the vibe of a docu-drama but that doesn’t mean spectacle is thrown to the wayside. From Salvatore Totino’s gorgeous cinematography to the roaring sound design and seamless visual effects work, this is a superlative production. When I say that Everest immerses you into the story, I really mean it. Kormákur does a superlative job of creating a sense of scale and depicting man’s feebleness in the face of nature. After watching the film, I spent an entire evening reading about the disaster, the world’s highest peaks, and even the various expeditions that have been undertaken to scale them.
Where Everest suffers is in its attention to character detail. Although Beaufoy and Nicholson spend a great deal of time on the story and getting us acquainted with the logistics of the expedition, they sell their characters short. In fact, with more than 10 major speaking parts, it’s arguable that there are too many characters. The result is a film in which some of their back-stories are gutted in favor of others whose story arcs are more cinema-friendly. It’s to Kormákur’s credit that he populates his cast with a host of talented and award-winning characters actors – all who are more than capable of mining their thin parts for their worth. The cast, in particular Gyllenhaal, Clarke, Brolin and Watson, elevate the material, making the most of their roles, thus allowing us to empathize with them during their toughest moments. With its harrowing story and unsentimental retelling, Everest isn’t exactly what I’d deem a fun, escapist time at the movies, but with top-notch filmmaking, a winning ensemble cast and superb craftsmanship, this mesh of spectacle-driven disaster movies and gripping survivalist dramas stands as a noble monument to those daredevils who choose to bravely stare death in the face.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Screenwriter: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Kelly, Emily Watson
Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Tyler Thompson, Brian Oliver
Running time: 121 minutes
Companies: Universal Pictures
Rating: PG-13 for intense peril and disturbing images