Don't be fooled by the sweeping string themes on the soundtrack or the earnest platitudes in the early dialogue scenes: Everest is not an inspirational film. In fact, it's more or less the cinematic equivalent of a de-motivational poster; taking the hopes and dreams of brave people and dashing them against the rocks. It doesn't attempt to strip away the romanticism of climbing Everest - such an achievement unquestionably has a poetic beauty - but it does temper that romanticism with the brutal realities of nature.
The film is based on writer Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, but opts to make Krakauer himself (played here by Michael Kelly, House of Cards) a peripheral figure in this particular telling of the tale. The center of the film is Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), a Mount Everest expedition group leader from New Zealand. He's led dozens of commercial climbs, but still feels concern about how crowded Everest is getting. More and more inexperienced climbers are paying vast sums of money to climb the world's tallest mountain, which naturally increases the chances that something will go wrong. As such, Rob works hard to ensure that all of the climbers under his supervision are properly prepared. Rob's fellow group leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler) gently dismisses Rob's style as "hand-holding," but Rob is determined not to let anyone die on his watch.
Rob's team is full of distinctive individuals, all of whom have different reasons for tackling the challenge. Doug Hansen (John Hawkes, The Sessions) is hoping to inspire a group of young students who helped him pay for the trip. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men) climbs mountains as a means of battling depression. Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori, Doctor Who) has climbed six of the world's seven tallest peaks, and is now aiming to complete her quest. Most of the film's first half is devoted to helping us get to know who these people are and how they got to Everest. Most of the characters come across as types rather than fully fleshed-out individuals, but we still feel we know them by the time the official climb begins.
There are a lot of miniature dramas during the month-long training process, and slightly larger dramas during the climb up the mountain. However, things don't get really intense until the descent, as the tired climbers are forced to confront a severe storm. As the title of Krakauer's book implies, things go south. There are a lot of talented actors in the film (I haven't yet mentioned the central women of the movie, which include a base camp leader played by Emily Watson and concerned wives played by Keira Knightley and Robin Wright), but this isn't really an actors showcase. After all of the warmth and perseverence and uplift, Everest is ultimately a portrait of the mountain's cruel ferocity.
Some have drawn comparisons between Everest and Gravity, but the key difference (aside from the fact that Alfonso Cuaron is a considerably more innovative filmmaker than Baltasar Koramakur) is that Everest isn't a tribute to the power of the human spirit. Instead, it suggests that no amount of heart is adequate in the face of the mountain's fury. When characters start getting killed off, their deaths aren't violent or bloody. They simply stop living: passing out and tumbling off a ledge, or freezing to death while trying to get a little rest. Night falls, the film's visuals grow distressingly murky and the sound of roaring wind overwhelms everything else on the soundtrack. It's effective. In the IMAX 3D format, the film's audiovisual impact is overwhelming: I felt cold and weary by the time it was over, despite the fact that I had been sitting in a perfectly comfortable seat for two hours.
While there are plenty of visual effects incorporated in the film, a larger-than-usual portion of what we're seeing is real. Koramakur shot much of the movie on location in Nepal (locations in Italy and Iceland were also utilized), and though there are certainly plenty of shots that emphasize the natural beauty of Everest, the film is rarely “beautiful” in a cheap way. There's far more visual emphasis on the countless dangers the mountain poses: the slippery surfaces, the thin ledges, the jagged edges, the walls of ice and snow that threaten to crumble at any moment.
Some of the cast members seem a little overqualified for the roles they're playing (Gyllenhaal's supporting turn as the free-spirited Fischer is one of the least substantial parts he's taken in a while), but at a certain point, you begin to realize why almost every single key role features a terrific actor: everyone has at least one moment of life-altering horror to confront, and that's not easy to fake. Yes, Knightley and Wright are perhaps too good to be reduced to playing tearful wives, but they bring such invaluable nuance to their reactions to troubling news. The cast member who makes the biggest impression is Brolin, playing a cocky, conservative Texan (he enters wearing a Dole/Kemp sweater) whose macho swagger eventually crumbles into surprisingly affecting vulnerability.
At its best, Everest is a gripping tale of man vs. nature, but it doesn't quite reach greatness. The first hour or so drags, and you sense the movie's pacing is being thrown off by the need to make sure we know where everything is and who everyone is. I'm also a little disappointed by the fact that the film doesn't seem to have much of a perspective on anything that happens here. It doesn't give us a sense of why these people have chosen to take on this considerable challenge (in one scene, Krakauer asks them about this directly and is treated to a series of deflections and half-answers), and you never get the sense that Koramakur has any strong feelings on the significance of the story he's telling (as with most man vs. nature films, one can't help but wonder what Werner Herzog might have done with the same material).
Still, there's also something admirable about the movie's non-committal stance on the meaning of the tale. I'm appreciative of the fact that Koramakur doesn't attempt to play what Tony Stark dubbed the “Man Shouldn't Meddle Medley,” and of the fact that the movie doesn't try to sand the edges off this tragedy with phony sentiment. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions, and those will undoubtedly be heavily informed by the specifics of their own relationship with nature. As for me... well, I can live with the knowledge that certain parts of the natural world are stronger than I am.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Year: 2015