Everest

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: William Nicholson; Simon Beaufoy

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur

There are a great many A-list names attached to this cinematic treatment of a particularly dark chapter in the history of Mt. Everest, yet the only one that really matters is the one given to the mountain. As a climber forebodingly notes in the earlygoing, “Everest will always have the last word.” She certainly did on May 10, 1996 when eight climbers lost their lives on her unforgiving slopes, but even after that debacle the restless have remained steadfast in their beliefs that their time would soon be coming.

Ah, the hubris of the human race. We have to conquer every summit. Mine every depth, or die trying. And if not that, we find ourselves stringing wire between the world’s tallest buildings and walking across it as an act of rebellion in the face of monotonous existence. Nineteenth century environmental activist and outdoor enthusiast John Muir is famously quoted saying that “when mountains call, wise men listen.” I find it an incomplete thought, for the wisest of men also listen when mountains warn them not to do something. But in the case of the world’s tallest, most notorious peak, the allure has proven time and again to be too great. When out of oxygen just below a summit that is finally in sight, all one has left to burn is ego. Very rarely is that sufficient fuel. Everest, the concept, seems reckless and irresponsible, but then again it’s all part of a world I probably will never understand.

My perspective is irrelevant though, and so too are those of pretty much all climbers involved in Baltasar Kormákur’s new movie. Everest is an inevitability, the culmination of years’ worth of obscure documentary footage about the numerous (occasionally groundbreaking) ascents that have simultaneously claimed and inspired lives within the climbing community and even outside of it (after all, Mt. Everest tends to attract anyone with deep enough pockets and the determination to put their bodies through hell for a few months out of the year). This film is, more specifically, the product of a few written accounts from the 1996 expedition, including that of Jon Krakaeur, whose take (Into Thin Air) I still can’t help but feel ought to have been the point of view supplied.

Unfortunately I can’t review a movie that doesn’t exist so here goes this. Kormákur inexplicably attracts one of the most impressive casts of the year — actually, it does make sense: he needed a talented group to elevate a dire script, people who could lend gravitas to dialogue kindergarten kids might have written — to flesh out this bird’s eye view on a disastrous weekend on the mountain. Everest is a story about many individual stories and experiences, of loss and failure resulting from decisions that were made in the name of achieving once-in-a-lifetime success. It plays out like a ‘Best of’ Everest, but really it’s a ‘worst of’ because what happened to the expeditions led by the Kiwi Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, standing out from the pack) and American go-getter Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) was nothing short of tragic.

If the movie focuses on anyone or anything in particular it’s Clarke’s indomitable spirit, and I suppose in some morbid way that’s the most effective use of our time when witnessing a disaster that claimed multiple lives. Hall’s the most developed character, he was an expedition leader, he’s portrayed by the incredibly affable Clarke and his fate marks Everest‘s gut-wrenching emotional crux. Everyone remembers that heartbreaking radio call he made to his wife Jan Arnold (an emotional Keira Knightley) after being left alone high up on the mountain in the wake of the storm that turned the expedition’s descent into an all-out dog fight against the extreme elements. Quite likely it’s the bit that will end up defining Kormákur’s otherwise bland adventure epic. It’s what I’m remembering the most now a couple days after the fact and it’s a painful memory to say the least.

Everest may not work particularly well as a human drama — there are simply too many individuals, prominent ones, for the story to devote equal time to — but as a visual spectacle and a testament to the power of nature, crown the film a victor. The mountain has never looked better, and of course by ‘better’ I mean terrifying, menacing, a specter of suffering and voluntary torture. The Lhotse Face, the Khumbu icefall, the Hilary Step — all of the infamous challenges are present and accounted for. Memories of Krakaeur’s personal and physical struggle as he slowly ticked off these landmarks on his way to the top come flooding back. Along with them, the more nagging thoughts: why is a great actor like Michael Kelly sidelined with such a peripheral role here? Why is his role ever-so-subtly antagonistic? But then Salvatore Torino’s sweeping camerawork distracts once again, lifting us high into the Himalayas in a way only the literal interpretation of the visual medium can.

With the exception of a few obvious props and set pieces, Everest succeeds in putting us there on the mountain with these groups. While it’s not difficult to empathize with these climbers — Josh Brolin’s Beck Weathers being the most challenging initially — the hodgepodge of sources create a film that’s unfocused and underdeveloped. It all becomes a bit numbing, and unfortunately not the kind brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and hurricane-force winds.

Recommendation: Unfocused and too broad in scope, Everest means well in its attempts to bring one of the most notorious days on the mountain to the big screen but it unfortunately doesn’t gain much elevation beyond summarizing all of the accounts we’ve either read about or heard about on Discovery Channel and History Channel specials. The visuals are a real treat, though I have no idea why this whole 3D thing is being so forcefully recommended as of late. I watched it in regular format and had no issues of feeling immersed in the physical experience. I just wish I could have gotten more out of it psychologically.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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28 thoughts on “Everest

    • Thanks amigo! The film could have been (and ought to have been) better but it’s most definitely a worthwhile experience. I brought in a level of expectation that was perhaps unfair.

  1. Great to read your thoughts on this one Tom. I think I enjoyed this one a little more than you but I agree that the huge number of characters has both positive and negative impacts on the film as a whole. If given a little more time in which to establish the various teams Kormákur could have a made a spectacular film here.

    • My experience suffered more from a lack of perspective. The approach was certainly broader than I was expecting and I felt this would have been more compelling if told from Krakaeur’s POV. I don’t want to get into spoilers but I feel like even if told from one person’s perspective Kormákur wouldn’t have been limited in the things he could have shown or the way people’s lives were tragically lost. They would have possibly had more impact given we were learning about it all from this journalist’s account.

      That’s what made Into Thin Air such a compelling read, the fact that all this chaos was going on around Krakaeur and yet he manages to survive, without even really being that big on mountaineering. But I suppose that wasn’t the game plan and the film does manage to be moving on occasion. I enjoyed it but I could have enjoyed it more.

  2. We’re on board mate. I really liked parts of it, others not so much. Too many characters, not enough focus. Yeah, the 3D thing was being piled on with this to make it stand out I guess. I watched it in 2D and it was fine.

    • Exactly. Everest does its best with the visuals and action sequences, a few of which actually created a lump in my throat actually as I knew pretty much what was about to happen to a few of them. Unfortunately major characters weren’t developed anywhere near enough. Clarke fared the best out of any of them but even he still wasn’t fully fleshed out. Sigh. Maybe the next Everest account will get it down pat

  3. Nice review Tom. We agree on a lot of points about Everest; I loved the cinematography but couldn’t get into any of the characters’ stories.

    • Yeah that sums up my thoughts nice and succinctly man. I was quite impressed with Jason Clarke in the lead; he and Kiera Knightly actually stood out as the couple; but unfortunately yeah this film suffered from just too many people and not a really focused perspective. I guess the whole point was to just capture the drama and honor the lives that were lost, so in that way Everest does succeed. But I liked the idea of this being told also from Krakaeur’s POV. I really think Michael Kelly could carry a film, he’s so great on House of Cards

  4. I didn’t think it needed to be deep in characteriztion. It was just an old fashioned rip roaring adventure ideally suited to the big screen. Everest delivered in the thrilling entertainment department for me. I was on the edge of my seat during most of it.

    • Yeah it was certainly that and then some. The drama that unfolds during and after the storm was very gripping and I was impressed with it, I just carried a bit too much of my impressions of Krakaeur’s account in with me I guess because the whole thing just didn’t feel quite as . . . I don’t know, I don’ know how to describe it. Something just kind of felt off about it. Hahah. That’s a terrible explanation, but something didn’t fully click. Hats off to Kormákur though, this couldn’t have been an easy film to make based on what I heard about them replaying the tapes they found from that day

  5. Hahaha oh, Tom. This line had me cracking up: “I find it an incomplete thought, for the wisest of men also listen when mountains warn them not to do something.”

    I think I would like to watch this. There is something about man vs the odds that is so mesmerizing. I have a big fascination with mountains and the people that dare them – pitching their insanity against nature’s insanity is so powerful.

    • Yeah this material is definitely great for entertainment and cautionary measures. I think Everest tries to recreate a massively chaotic day on the mountain and because it never finds a certain point of view to lock on the whole thing gets more and more distant as time goes on and it just feels weird. It’s still a very solid disaster movie and i would highly rate it just on that basis. 🙂

      Glad you liked that line. Good ol’ John Muir rattt thurr

  6. I watched it in 2D too and it was perfectly fine (and by perfectly fine I of course mean visually stupendous). Great work Tom, we disagree slightly on the human drama — I think there’s a fair chunk to be had, particularly surrounding Clarke and Watson — but you make a compelling point regarding the source material. Perhaps using Krakauer’s account as a direct point of reference would’ve afforded the film more focus character-wise.

    • Yeah I ought to have found a better way to put that — the drama between the Hall family was certainly a high point. It was the thing I took away from the movie more than the spectacular visuals, that radio/phone call he made to his wife was heartbreaking. I remember when the audio of that was made available in the early ’00s, the actual call, that is. Crazy stuff.

      I personally am a massive fan of Krakaeur’s account. He’s of course gifted when it comes to writing so the whole experience was vivid in my mind and that’s what I had in my mind going into this. My fault, really, b/c Kormákur has stated he didn’t base it on that book. I didn’t like the way his character was portrayed either, he came across as the annoying journalist rather than as being one of the guys as I suspect he really was embraced as .

      • Yeah that’s certainly fair. I think it has come out since that Krakauer isn’t too enamoured with how he is depicted. I don’t think I’ve heard the actual phone call — don’t know if I want to hear it!

        • It’s truly terrible man. Breaks your heart.

          I wouldn’t mind at all sitting through Everest again, it’s certainly a justifiable movie. Some of these films in the expedition sub genre of disaster/adventure films can be really painful to sit through and not b/c of the emotional toll they take either, lol

  7. Keep hearing positive things about this, man. That said, I enjoy your honesty here in pointing out the flaws it also has. I’ll looking forward to seeing it.

    Nice to see you mention John Muir as well. I actually live in the area where the John Muir walk cuts through. I’ve only walked a small portion but it’s now the biggest walk in Scotland in believe – taking over from the well known, West Highland Way.

    • John Muir, the man, the myth, the legend. That’s cool to hear about the trail, I’m sure it’s a beautiful one with a lot of scenic points. There’s one near where I used to live in Tennessee, it spans several hundred miles and a few friends of mine took off for a week to walk it. They never came back. Just kidding. 😉

      As for this movie, yeah it’s definitely easy on the eyes and there’s a few solid dramatic moments but I was so hoping for more. I took my time in getting around to seeing it so I think I may have gotten my expectations up a bit high. A lot of reviews really got me excited.

      • Excellent, man! I just assumed because Muir was Scottish that it was only in Scotland that he would be celebrated. It’s nice to hear that he travels further afield!

    • Sometimtes the risks certainly outweigh the rewards. This is a chilling reminder. Just wish it had been conveyed a bit better

    • Yeah i bet it’s pretty fantastic in IMAX and 3D but i just can’t justify dropping $20 at a theater for one show haha. I can buy a DVD for that or even see two movies in a day. And for what its worth no matter what format this was in, the story just wasn’t great and the acting even worse

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