Everest is not an easy movie to watch. No entertainment that contains such tragedy should be.
The truly breathtaking spectacle and technical achievements can make you feel like you too are on a vertical slope at 29,000 feet. But this awe-inspiring movie is also one that’s laced with dread, little triumph and even less perspective as you wait, with a knotted stomach, for the disasters to manifest.
Everest recounts the events of, and leading up to, May 10, 1996, when a series of controversial decisions and a heap of bad luck led to the deaths of eight climbers — then the deadliest day in Everest history.
It is not, however, based on the most famous account, journalist Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. It’s an amalgamation of stories, reports and never-before-heard tapes from the day, focused mostly though on Adventure Consultants lead Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and Texan climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin).
Krakauer is a character in Everest (played by House of Cards’ Michael Kelly), but a peripheral, underdeveloped one. His presence as a journalist covering the expedition frames the growing tension between customer service and safety inherent in the commercialization of adventure. The script also uses him as a “why climb” observer. He can bluntly ask what the audience is thinking, and he does at one point. The scene goes nowhere, though. The other characters crack wise or choose silence, as though the desire to climb Everest is so unexplainable. “Because it’s there,” they say.
So when a handful of climbers do make it to the peak, it’s harder to feel their euphoria. All we can see is looming death.
That’s part of the problem of Everest. All the elements are there, but the emotions never land, even with the inclusion of previously private conversation between Rob Hall and his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) as his plight atop the mountain becomes direr.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns) wrangles the story, characters and beastly natural setting as best as he can. The film trots along briskly and hits beats with sitcom precision as we go from sea level to base camp to the ultimate ascent. There is some levity, too, thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal’s earthy expedition leader Scott Fischer, but mostly blunt foreboding.
The scenes on the mountain are truly outstanding, and the 3-D is atmospheric, not gimmicky. You can almost feel the ice thrashing against the characters’ faces as the remarkable storm hits.
The grandiosity of the mountain, though, is juxtaposed with Kormákur’s odd choice to shoot many of the character scenes in extreme close-up. Unless you’re in the ideal center in an IMAX theater, the effect can be claustrophobic, and it does not make the emoting more effective. Instead, it detracts from the performances.
Fictionalized accounts of real tragedy are not impenetrable. James Cameron made us feel for a ship full of characters we’d never met. Everest can’t break that seal, and it’s a handicap. Maybe there’s too much reverence. Maybe the story and the truth are supposed to be enough and anything else would have seemed exploitative. With 19 years of perspective and the technical ability to visually tell the story that we’ve all heard so many times at this point, though, it should have been more.
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur.
Screenwriters: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 121 minutes. Intense peril, disturbing images. Playing at IMAX area theaters only. Opens wider Sept. 25.