Everest is not a film that inspires extended commentary, at least for those who are not mountaineers, armchair or otherwise. That’s not because it’s a bad film, though–indeed, despite the somewhat muted (if ultimately positive) reviews, it’s a very good example of a true spectacle, a film designed for the IMAX 3D experience, which for its first week of release it is being shown exclusively in.
And if you can, you should see it thus. The 3D might not add much (though I confess it has almost never done so for me), but the vast screen and especially the enveloping sound make for a galvanizing experience, elevating quite a solid film into something like a cinematic event.
In 1996, a number of travel agencies specializing in “adventures” converge upon Everest with their clientele. The film focuses on two companies, Adventure Consultants, co-founded by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who is acting as their primary guide, and Mountain Madness, similarly co-founded and led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). The climbers for Adventure Consultants are more extensively profiled:
- Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan doctor and avid amateur mountaineer;
- Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman making his third attempt at scaling Everest–and, as we learn, is doing so only because Rob gave him a sizable discount;
- Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a writer for Outside magazine;
- Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a businesswoman who has climbed six of the Seven Summits and has only to check Everest off the list.
Other characters include:
- Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), who runs the Everest Base Camp;
- Jan (Keira Knightley), Rob’s wife, a fellow mountaineer who cannot take part in the trip as she is pregnant with their daughter;
- Peach (Robin Wright), Beck’s wife;
- Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), one of Rob’s right-hand men;
- Dr. Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), primary physician for the expedition;
- Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), a Russian guide who shuns the use of supplementary oxygen and is frustrated by the crowded conditions on the mountain.
After the various participants come together in Kathmandu to begin their training, in late April they make their way to the mountain to begin their ascent, with May 10th as the day they intend to summit Everest. Things seem to go relatively smoothly until the 10th, when the calamities begin to mount:
- Vital guide ropes for the final stages of the ascent have not been placed;
- Despite 2 p.m. being Rob’s pre-arranged turnaround point, he stays on the mountain till nearly 4 to help Doug summit;
- Supplementary oxygen placed on the mountain for the descent is depleted or defective;
- A severe storm is moving towards the mountain.
I won’t give away just what happens; though the outcome is readily discoverable, I didn’t know the exact details going in, which I think helped maintain the suspense for me. Suffice to say, there is a great deal of tragedy over the next two days. But there is a triumph as well, and the very end of the film (at the end of the obligatory coda) reminds us that life does go on.
Everest has faced a fair amount of criticism for its script (by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy), but I don’t think it’s all that bad. Yes, it can be hard to keep track of just who is who (I had to consult Wikipedia to sort out all the character details), and there are a few moments which feel a little hoary, even if they may be true (one scene, where a character revives from seeming death as visions of their family urge them on, feels particularly overwrought). But on the whole, I thought it was entirely functional as a docudrama script, especially for one where the spectacle is the main attraction.
Basically, it’s at least as good a script (and nearly as good a film) as Gravity (and no Ghost Clooney), and it’s a damn sight better than Nicholson’s horrid script for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
The acting helps a great deal. Clarke is one of those actors I generally like who seems to get stuck with mostly unrewarding roles, but here he gets his best role and gives his best performance since Zero Dark Thirty; Rob is a picture of genuine decency, a loving husband and devoted friend, a wholly trustworthy guide who makes a serious error in trying to do right by his client. Most importantly, he never feels like an idealized figure; his goodness rings true, and Clarke’s performance is why.
Brolin is also quite strong as Beck, whose outward virility and quick wit hide a troubled inner nature. Watson, who’s been getting stuck with some rather bad material lately (Little Boy, anyone?) is utterly convincing as Helen struggles to remotely keep the situation from falling completely apart. Knightley, though relegated to a glorified cameo, is quite solid as well. The script doesn’t get all the mileage it could out of Doug’s desperation, but Hawkes does as well as he can. Gyllenhaal has less to do than I expected (was his role reduced because he’s been so busy lately?), but he’s an inherently compelling presence.
The whole cast honestly does quite well. But the real stars of the film are the technical aspects, and they’re great. Director Baltasar Kormákur brings it all together smoothly, but it’s in depicting the chaos which ensues once the storm hits that his direction really shines. Again, it can be confusing at times to tell climber from climber, but the sense of tension, of fear, and ultimately of horror is superbly maintained for most of the film’s second half–there’s a moment when a character is left, seemingly to die, and their sense of desolation is powerfully evoked.
Salvatore Totino’s cinematography is certainly impressive (“vertiginous” is the word), and combined with some top-notch special effects, blends together the various locales where the film was shot (Italy, Nepal, Iceland, and even in the studio) to create an effective portrait of the forbidding mountain. I do wish the film had taken a little more time to breathe now and then; when the final push for the summit begins in the middle of the night, a prime moment to savor the silent, clear beauty of the moment feels a bit rushed by.
Mick Audsley’s editing is mostly strong, but it (or maybe the problem is the script) does skirt over a few story elements I’d like the film to have further developed. It’s worth noting that early word had the running time as being about 150 minutes, while the film as released is only 121 minutes. I’m not sure if there was re-cutting (or if that original figure was a typo for 1 hour and 50 minutes), but I wouldn’t be shocked if some additional character material ended up on the cutting room floor.
Top honors, though, must go to Glenn Fremantle, the sound designer, and the mixing team (led, it appears, by one Adrian Bell). The sound is perhaps the most crucial reason this should be seen in a theater, as the howling winds and blowing snow truly envelop one, adding tremendously to the immersive effect. It really is one of the most impressive soundscapes I’ve seen in a while (Mad Max was amazing as well, but marred just a little by some obvious ADR.) Dario Marianelli’s solid score is the final cherry on top.
Everest is not a perfect film, and while I think it’s stronger than many reviews have let on, it doesn’t always go as deep as it could have. That the cast is so good and the filmmaking so impressive make it very much worth seeing…but in a theater. It would not be nearly as effective at home.