The phrase “visually stunning” is used pretty liberally these days, what with a new blockbuster extravaganza arriving nearly every weekend. The new disaster drama, Everest, quite literally takes things to new heights. Director Baltasar Kormákur mixes breathtaking cinematography, dizzying special effects, and pummeling sound to bring the infamous mountain to life. Unfortunately, the script can’t keep pace, as it sidesteps the shortcomings of its characters in order to preserve an emotional denouement. It’s worth an afternoon at the IMAX theater to take in the sights, but don’t expect any new insight into this harrowing ordeal.
In 1996, eight climbers comprising two expedition groups died after being overtaken by a vicious storm atop Mt. Everest. One group, Adventure Consultants, was led by the amiable Kiwi, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), while the other was helmed by the hard-living American, Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). “Our bodies will literally be dying,” Hall warns his clients before embarking upon their expedition. Not even a month spent at gradually ascending altitudes can prepare the human body for such brutal conditions. Of course, with clients paying $65,000 to summit Everest, failure isn’t really an option for Hall or Fischer.
The idea of commerce compromising safety is what first brought journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) to Mt. Everest. His novel, Into Thin Air, still stands as the most compelling firsthand account of the ’96 disaster. Krakauer was fascinated by the commercialization of Everest, but he fell prey to the exhilaration of conquering the beast. That same deadly cocktail of adrenaline and hubris is ever-present in Everest, but director Kormákur (The Deep, Contraband) and his writers, Nicholson and Beaufoy, stop shy of asking the big questions that need to be asked.
Take the character of Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who freely admits to feeling dead inside whenever he’s not on a mountainside; a personal insight that his wife (Robin Wright) and two young children might find disconcerting. Another mountaineer, Doug (John Hawkes), cheerfully confides that his wife divorced him over his death-defying escapades. These revelations hint at deeper issues, namely the apparent conflict between risk-taking behavior and personal responsibility to others, but the filmmakers aren’t interested in such moral quandaries. Their story cares more about the intrepid spirit of adventure than the emotional carnage it causes. Until the end of the film, of course, when they need that emotional carnage to amp-up the tragedy.
It’s a tragedy that, by all accounts, could have been prevented. Constant weather reports allow Hall to pinpoint a narrow window in which to summit the mountain, but he disregards everything in an ill-advised attempt to placate Doug’s desperation. Safety ropes—the only things that separate living climbers from dead ones—are speedily assembled under massive duress. Oxygen tanks are scattered about like discarded cigarette butts, while competing expeditions squabble over summit times like petulant children. It’s hard to form emotional attachments to such wantonly-reckless individuals, and when they finally meet their inevitable fate, you weep for their family’s unnecessary suffering. Everest isn’t sad so much as frustrating and enraging.
The performances in Everest are pretty hit or miss. Clarke exudes humanity as Hall; a man whose intense empathy might have, paradoxically, harmed his clients. In contrast, Gyllenhaal struggles to personalize his performance as Fischer, who comes across as a vapid playboy. Brolin, too, never feels comfortable as the cocky but insecure Weathers. Emily Watson is strong as the desperate base camp coordinator, conveying a true sense of helplessness in nearly every scene, and Keira Knightley is ever-reliable as Hall’s pregnant wife.
All of these characters, however, were doomed to be overshadowed by Mt. Everest. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (Angels & Demons, Frost/Nixon) beautifully frames each scene to accentuate the smallness of the actors. We gaze skyward from gaping chasms and peer into the abyss while clinging to rickety ladders tethered together by bungee rope. And when the storm finally hits, it’s a percussive assault that will leave you numb. It’s a credit to Kormákur that you can feel each blast of wind as your bones ache from the unrelenting cold. The sound design, too, is spectacular, with nothing escaping the deafening white noise or thundering avalanches. Everest is a remarkable technical achievement that’s worth the price of admission.
Still, it’s impossible not to want a little more from Everest. A little more insight into the human condition. A little more substance from its freewheeling characters. A little more acknowledgement that commerce and nature were equally to blame for this tragedy. Ultimately, the visual and auditory spectacle wins the day. It’s the closest you can come to climbing Everest without actually having to be there.