EVEREST (2015) review
written by: William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy
produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormákur, Nicky Kentish Barnes & Tyler Thompson Brian Oliver
directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
rating: PG-13 (for intense peril and disturbing images)
runtime: 121 min.
U.S. release date: September 18, 2015
I left my viewing of “Everest” feeling kind of depressed and also curious about the title character. Shocked and awed, I suppose. I got the feeling I wasn’t alone as I noticed other critics quietly exiting the IMAX theater, making their way to the lobby with occasional eye contact as if to say, “well, that happened”. That’s a two-fold unspoken expression there, meaning: this tragic “based on a true story” actually happened and the fact that another survival thriller that primarily follows certain genre conventions, has been made. My head was full of thoughts afterwards, thinking about the numerous frozen bodies that’ve become a permanent fixture on Everest over the years, wondering how the surviving family members feel when their deceased loved are characters in movies like this and also how all the moviegoers expecting an action movie will respond to it.
Based on the ads and trailers for the film, “Everest” may be seen as an exciting action movie, maybe even a triumphant one. No doubt, there are exciting scenes in the film, since the idea of climbing Mount Everest is harrowing in and of itself, but my bet is many will come out of the film taken aback by what they just witnessed and how they feel afterwards – especially those who aren’t aware of the details of the actual events. There’s a reason the expedition in this movie has been covered by several books, documentaries, and television productions already and it’s not because everyone survived – which is why it’s known as the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster.
35 year-old Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is the owner of a New Zealand-based commercial mountaineering company called Adventure Consultants, designed to bring would-be adventurers up Mount Everest for a fee of $65,000 a pop. Along with partner and base camp manager, Helen (Emma Watson), the company’s primary goal is safety and both of them aim to earn a reputation for successfully sending their clients to the top. One particular expedition set for May 1996 finds Rob leaving his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), to take a new group for a climb up Everest in Nepal.
The group consists of eight clients, including: 49 year-old Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a pathologist from Texas, 45 year-old Doug Hanesen (John Hawkes) a mailman from the States, 47 year-old Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) a Japanese climber who had already summited six other peaks and 41 year-old journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), on assignment for Outside magazine. All of them have prior mountain climbing experience and Hanesen even attempted Everest before. Helping Rob and his clients are two of his guides, Australian Mike Groom (Thomas Wright), who had summited Everest back in 1993 and Andy Harris (Martin Henderson), but despite extensive preparations they inevitably run into some obstacles.
When they arrive at base camp, Rob learns that there are several other climbing companies positioning for their place at the top. His friend, the easy-going Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who runs his own company, Mountain Madness, is there along with his right hand man, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and the two agree to merge their group with Adventure Consultants in an effort to work together to get to the top. As the two teams make their way up Everest, through the levels of camps, there is word that a possible storm is coming, which motivates Rob to ascend early on the morning of May 10th.
Almost everyone makes the perilous trek to the peak, yet despite Rob’s efforts, his clients take longer than he had hoped which found them staying longer than planed. This results in the group’s descent encountering a fierce blizzard which separates the group. Lives are lost and the those who remain struggle to survive the night, braving the extreme elements with depleting energy and oxygen quickly.
There’s a long list of people who’ve died trying to climb Mount Everest, so there’s no getting around that “Everest” will include sudden or dramatic deaths. That being said, I’ve found that I’ve become sensitive to how movies capture real-life deaths – in survival or war movies – on the big-screen.
A movie like “Lone Survivor”, for example, overdramatized deaths, but in this movie, director Baltasar Kormákur (“Contraband” and “2 Guns“) actually captured how one would imagine fatalities would occur if the human body was getting pummeled by such extreme weather conditions – either a sudden slip or a slow frozen demise. There is thankfully no slo-mo plummeting to certain death. It’s harrowing to capture affectively on film, but Kormákur manages to give viewers sudden shocks and moments of survival that are challenging to watch – mainly because it’s hard not to think of how the real events occurred.
There are elements of “Everest” that come across as routine survival genre beats, which is bound to happen whenever we see material that has already been covered repeatedly. The first hour or so provides us with motivations and challenges of the characters, thanks to screenwriters Mark Medoff (“Children of a Lesser God”) and Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), who can’t get around some broad characterizations.
This is especially true when we meet Brolin’s Beck around the time he is getting introduced to the rest of the group. His “aw shucks” Texan pride with his Dole/Kemp ’96 T-shirt is more than a little overbearing. He’s never a fully-realized person until it’s mentioned that he’s scared (and even then, Beck doesn’t admit it) – but the screenplay doesn’t bother to delve deeper into that understable emotion. This leaves the character in a stereotypical stasis and it doesn’t get any better than that for his wife, Peach (an under-utilized Robin Wright – who, like Knightley is left to sit by the phone and worry), which is another typical characterization in the survival genre.
There is an opportunity for philosophizing and pontificating that would provide more motivation and purpose for these climbers during a base camp dinner scene when Krakauer asks them the perennial “Why?” question. Of course, the expected “because it’s there” answer chimes in like a choral refrain, but there’s an opportunity lost to explore why certain humans are compelled to reach heights that require oxygen canisters in order to breathe, frostbite and other deadly ailments. Hawkes’ mailman character, Doug, states that he aspires to inspire his kids and show them that if an ordinary guy like him can chase his dreams and do the impossible, then maybe it’ll inspire them to do the same too. That’s quite a rehearsed Hallmark answer, if there ever was one, but I’ll buy it. Still, this question isn’t probed any more than that, probably for time sake. One would think a journalist who is there on assignment would probe a little deeper, but alas, that is not this movie – and we gotta get up that mountain!
The first hour or so of “Everest” also drops certain foretelling plot points that exist solely to hint at how climbers will eventually die. We learn about high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and hypoxia, which finds climbers hallucinating that he or she is overheating and has them stripping off layers until the subzero temperatures take their lives. While it’s obvious why these illnesses are mentioned before ascension, it is nevertheless a helpful educational device that gives us a greater understanding of what can and will eventually occur. That being said, “Everest” strongly emphasizes (a bit too much, actually) one or two characters that cough profusely during the ascent and yet they are still allowed to continue. This tells me that just as this is a ‘man vs. nature’ story, it also includes more than a couple of human errors as well.
In an effort to provide realistic surroundings, Kormákur chose to film in actual mountain locations rather than opt for green screen digital work. “Everest” was shot in Italian alps, Iceland and various areas in Nepal, using wide-screen shots and sweeping aerial cameras to provide the audience with a sense of breathtaking geography that gives an idea of how immense the title character is next to its visitors.
Despite the convincing production values and some really good performances by Clarke and Knightley, it’s hard to consider “Everest” a good time at the movies. I just couldn’t shake the weight I held onto after watching it. It may deliver a solid human drama and offer a convincing naturalistic threat, but I can’t see it earning a steady word-of-mouth.
On that note, “Meru” is a better mountaineering movie currently playing and not just because it’s a documentary. It’s more intimate, more impressive and free from the trappings of the Hollywood stocktype often found in these survivor movies. Again, there’s no doubt that what these men and women did was harrowing and that they were determined, but I’m the wrong guy to say whether or not it was all worth it.