The mountaineering sport is not new to feature films. Amongst others, we’ve seen it in the action-thriller ‘Cliffhanger‘ and in the drama ‘Vertical Limit‘. Telling the true story of a tragic guided expedition to the peak of the largest mountain on Earth, with a minimal amount of sensationalizing, ‘Everest’ achieves the spectacle, tension and quality that most have not.
Each of the Hollywood studio movies that Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur has directed to this point (‘Contraband‘, ‘2 Guns‘) has been chock full over-stylization and writing problems, but that’s surprisingly not the case with ‘Everest’. Instead of dramatizing the well-known story at hand, the film is told with a delicate sensibility that empathizes with those fortunate enough to survive the ordeal while honoring those who did not.
‘Everest’ features a large ensemble cast that begins with Jason Clarke. After a set of title cards that explains the history of climbers attempting to reach the summit, we meet his character, Rob Hall, a New Zealand professional hiker who owns a company that leads guided several-month-long expeditions to the peak. In the process of building his business, despite having a very-pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), he leaves to head-up an Everest summit. Amongst those in his latest group is famous journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), and the publicity could really boost business.
The majority of the movie highlights the members of Rob’s party. Josh Brolin and John Hawkes play significant roles, but there are plenty of other supporting characters. The most well-known are Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Debicki, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robin Wright.
At 12:30 AM on May 10, 1996, several guided groups left the highest camp to summit Everest’s peak. After getting to the top, the expectation was to begin the descent at 2:00 PM. Additional oxygen canisters and ropes were thought to be in place and the weather appeared to be ideal. However, not one of those three things turned out in their favor. Ropes were not good, oxygen tanks were either lost or missing, and a horrible storm arrived much earlier than anticipated. Although many in the group made it to the peak, the conditions for the descent could not have been any worse.
Much has been written about this expedition, but the screenplay co-written by Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy (‘Slumdog Millionaire‘) and Oscar-nominated William Nicholson (‘Gladiator‘) isn’t based on any specific previous account. Instead of telling the story from one person’s perspective, it takes a holistic approach and collectively tells the larger story. The first half of the film is dedicated to introducing and forming emotional connections with many of the characters. Then, as things start to turn sour in the second half, there’s a tangible gravity to it. Some characters will not make it out alive. When they go, they’re simply gone. If one falls off the face of the mountain, the camera doesn’t follow them down. We simply see them fall out of the frame. Not only is this approach tasteful, but it makes your heart ache when the unexpected happens to a character that you’ve come to know and love.
For the first week, ‘Everest’ is solely showing in 3D and 2D IMAX theaters. Starting next Friday, it will expand to standard-size 3D and 2D screens. Given the exclusive IMAX kick-off, I expected it to be a bit more visually impactful in the grand format. I found the size of the IMAX to slightly add to the experience, but expected the film to be shot in a way that better utilized it. When I saw ‘The Dark Knight ‘ in IMAX, for example, I specifically recall feeling vertigo during a brief shot in the intro when the Joker’s hired thugs use a zipline to get from one tall building to the roof of another. Unfortunately, I didn’t experience anything close to that with ‘Everest’. The aspect ratio isn’t any different from that of a standard screen. It’s simply a larger screen. I always prefer the largest screen possible for any movie, but don’t think the IMAX adds too much more to the ‘Everest’ experience.
I understand and am completely on-board with screenwriters adapting stories to make them work cinematically. Something may work in a book that doesn’t work on-screen, even for true stories. Unfortunately, that’s where I find ‘Everest’ lacking. Without a climax, the movie abruptly comes to an end without warning. I was left confused when one survivor starts making his way off the mountain, only to have the scene jump-cut to a taxi cab dropping him off at his home in the United States. Abandoning many of the characters at the highest camp and not showing how they made it the rest of the way down through the treacherous ice fields despite being wounded and fatigued is a little unsatisfying. We’re only shown how one member of the ensemble made it out. To become so attached to the group of characters and only see how one of them makes it out is disappointing.
Despite my nitpick with the ending, a lot more good happen in ‘Everest’ than bad. It’s a very strong drama that’s gripping from beginning to end. The danger doesn’t arise until the second hour, but there’s still a great amount of tension because you know that something horrible lies ahead. Once the storm hits and the oxygen starts running out, it becomes a taxing viewing experience. If you don’t notice yourself holding your breath and clenching muscles while watching, you’ll certainly feel it in your aching body when you get up to leave. I was exhausted by the time the film ended. Although that may not sound pleasant, it’s a worthwhile moviegoing experience that I won’t soon forget.