One of the best things about the cinema is its ability to transport us to places we would never imagine visiting in real life. For me, Mount Everest would be near the top of that list. What would it be like to attempt to conquer nature’s most formidable peak? The film Everest, based upon John Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, does this better than almost any film I’ve ever seen. The film, which was partially shot on the mountain itself, does an incredible job of making us feel like we’re on the mountain, from the frigid temperatures to the icy winds and formidable heights.
The film recounts Krakauer’s true-life account of a 1996 expedition to summit the mountain by a group of explorers that goes terribly wrong. Krakauer (played in the film by Michael Kelly) joins up on an expedition with Adventure Consultants, led by adventuresome Kiwi Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). Hall has spent years guiding intrepid mountaineers up the slopes. This year’s group is especially well-qualified. There’s brash Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Yasuko, a Japanese climber who has scaled 6 out of the world’s tallest peaks and aims to make Everest her seventh, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a self-proclaimed everyman who was forced to turn back in a previous scaling attempt, among others. All the climbers have their own reasons for climbing, but they all have an equal determination to make it to the top. But Everest cares little for the hubris of man.
Director Baltasar Kormákur and screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy do a great job of easing into the climb; the film’s first half fills us in on the myriad perils of climbing a 29,000 foot peak. The climbers, who have paid an astronomical sum (about $60,000, the film tells us) for this chance, must first go through 40 days of rigorous training. This includes acclimating their bodies to the thin air, which can result in climbers hacking up blood or even going mad (some poor souls have been known to throw off their clothes, exclaiming that they’re boiling hot even as their bodies succumb to hypothermia). We’re also introduced to the rivalries that exist between competing expedition companies, including Hall’s friendly competition with Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). This focus on acclimating both the climbers and the audience to the grandiosity of the climb pays off. We feel everything the climbers have gone through to reach the actual day of the climb, and we feel the dread of knowing that, despite all that preparation, the mountain could still win.
In its almost slavish dedication to telling the true-life story of the expedition and how it went wrong, the film suffers in its abundance of characters. There are literally dozens of characters I’ve failed to mention (all played by very fine actors), all of them based upon real-life people. In the context of a movie, I start to lose focus. It’s hard to care about everyone equally when some are given deep backstories and motivation and others almost none. Throw large snow jackets and headgear on them and the situation becomes even more complicated. I wish the screenwriters had focused on less characters; eliminating a few characters or combining them with others would have worked wonders.
In Everest, the real star is clearly the mountain itself, and it doesn’t disappoint. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography is marvelous, never failing to remind us of both the beauty and the terror of it all. This is a film that is meant to be seen on the largest screen possible. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it actually feels like to be on Everest, this is one to check out.
In attempting to mimic Krakauer’s exhaustive attention to detail, Everest often feels like a documentary. That has its pluses and minuses. The film is so dedicated to realism that it seems to forget that mountain climbing can sometimes be, well, boring, no matter how imposing the mountain may be. Despite the impressive visuals, I was never really on the edge of my seat. Perhaps the right term is workmanlike. This may be how it really feels to climb the mountain, but the cinematic payoff is decidedly underwhelming. The talent both behind of and in front of the camera is off the charts, but Everest never crackles like it should.
Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what a film doesn’t have, only that it doesn’t have it. Here, it feels like we’ve traveled but we never really arrive. I didn’t walk out of the theater saying “wow,” but I also felt a lot closer to Mt. Everest than I ever thought I would. I admire the craftsmanship of Everest more than the final product. But, as far as craftsmanship goes, it remains an occasionally gripping and mighty impressive spectacle.