While it is well-acted and extremely well-shot, granting views of Mt. Everest and the Himalayas that audiences have rarely, if ever, seen on film, Everest the film is difficult to describe as an enjoyable film. Like the climb up to Earth’s highest point that it depicts, the film becomes an endurance test, and after a while, it’s simply exhausting to watch as the mountain and the elements slowly tear down the characters the film spends its first hour building up. Yes, it is certainly an incredible story of courage and survival brought to life in the most respectful manner possible, without undue melodrama or unnecessary embellishment. But it’s also a grind of a film, and unless you’re fascinated by these types of stories or just in the mood for a film that you know going in is not going to end on the happiest of notes, it’s tough to recommend it as a fun way to spend a few hours at the movies this weekend.
The story of the 1996 disaster on Everest has already been documented in a number of books written by, among others, survivors from the expeditions that were on the mountain that day, and on film in the popular 1998 IMAX documentary, also titled Everest, which was in production on the mountain when the event occurred and whose crew helped in the rescue of the endangered climbers. But for those unfamiliar with the story, the film depicts the disaster from the point of view of the group of climbers led by New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants, whose founder, renowned climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Terminator Genisys), helped pioneer the business of guiding non-professional climbers to Everest’s summit. Among Rob’s group are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a doctor and climbing enthusiast from Texas; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), whose failed attempt to summit Everest the previous year drives him hard to succeed this time, and John Krakauer (Michael Kelly, Netflix’s “House of Cards“), a journalist from an outdoors adventure magazine embedded with the group in order to write about the trip and (Rob hopes) promote the experience to a wider base of potential climbers. Leading a separate climbing group is American Scott Friedman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who shares a friendly rivalry with Rob and enjoys ribbing the Kiwi about his “hand-holding” style of guiding climbers, a stark contrast to Friedman’s “If you can’t do it on your own, you don’t belong here” approach.
Rob and Scott’s groups are among a number of climbing expeditions that all set out to climb Everest in the Spring of 1996, all hoping to summit by early May. Though each of the groups, Adventure Consultants in particular, took great care to prepare their amateur climbers physically and mentally for the climb in the weeks prior to May 10th, no amount of preparation could have prepared any of them for the storm that swept over Everest with hurricane speed and force just after 3pm that fateful day, while less than half of the climbers were making their descent after reaching the summit just hours before, and the rest still attempting to reach the top.
For those at Everest Base Camp anxiously waiting for climbers to make it back down, including Adventure Consultants operations manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), and for the wives and loved ones of the climbers waiting at home, including Rob’s pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) and Beck’s wife Peach Weathers (Robin Wright), there’s nothing to be done but hope for radio contact or a satellite phone call as the storm rages, the hours pass, and Rob and company face death in a half a dozen different ways stemming from prolonged exposure and/or oxygen deprivation. Rescue parties are only possible if and when the storm subsides enough for climbers to safely ascend with oxygen tanks and emergency equipment, but of course, that may be far, far too late.
If audiences plan to see Everest once it opens, it’s best to do two things: 1) DON’T refresh your memory regarding the actual events, who survives and who doesn’t, etc., and 2) DO see it in IMAX. It’s clear that Iceland-born director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, Contraband) intends for audiences to experience the film in that format, which comes as close to capturing the experience of being in the presence of the mountain and its formidable obstacles as imaginably possible. There are, of course, similarities in the visuals to what director David Breashears caught on IMAX film when he and his crew filmed Everest the documentary almost two decades ago, but that’s due, in some measure, at least, to Breashears himself being a consultant on this film due to his first-hand experience. One shouldn’t go into this film thinking, “Well, I saw the IMAX one years ago. I don’t need to see it again” because this version of Everest is a profoundly different viewing experience, far more intimate and emotionally-driven than its documentary short predecessor.
To that end, it falls to the talented cast assembled for Everest to bring to life in a compelling way the intrepid climbers, their own reasons for undertaking a potentially lethal adventure, and the relationships they maintain across great distances with their families and forge with those traveling with them. Jason Clarke, who has been wowing feature film audiences since 2012 with his turns in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless, delivers an effortlessly charismatic performance as Rob Hall, whose reputation in the climbing community and in the commercial high-altitude climbing industry was defined by his devotion to his clients’ safety and his love of helping people achieve the impossible. In truth, there isn’t a single performance delivered here that wouldn’t stand out in a lesser production: Brolin is particularly arresting in a rare on-screen role where he has to project real, visceral fear; while Watson, Knightly, and Sam Worthington as Rob’s longtime friend and climbing colleague Guy Cotter all do fine work in limited screen minutes.
That said, for all its eye-popping visuals and heart-stirring performances, Everest does more or less follow the now-well-established conventional outline for disaster films. It introduces its characters and their motivations, establishes the dangers of what the characters face while foreshadowing threats they aren’t prepared for or potentially they might bring upon themselves, and then hits them with the horror that the audience can’t help but know is coming, leaving only who will survive as the only real dramatic question. Screenwriters William Nicholson (Unbroken, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Simon Beaufoy (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Slumdog Millionaire) seem to take into account details from the most authoritative sources on the real-life events — the books and accounts written by those who survived — in a way that’s respectful of all parties concerned while avoiding parts of the story where those details differed in the accounts.
Most importantly, it avoids casting blame on any one group or individual for what happened or just why so many of the 34 climbers on the mountain that day were in harm’s way when the storm hit. While that certainly will help to avoid any controversy from dogging the film, it also renders the film devoid of any new insight or different perspective on the events as a whole. Put another way, audiences coming away from this version of Everest will not have learned anything about the events that hasn’t already been documented — they simply will have experienced the story in a different way.
And perhaps that doesn’t matter. As far as disaster films go, or any other genre film for that matter, following the formula doesn’t necessarily equate to creating a bad film, and it certainly doesn’t equate to that with Everest. The attention to detail, the film’s truly incredible photography of Everest itself, and the heart and sincerity in the performances of the cast put the film head and shoulders above most other entries in the genre. Does it play it safe with the story as far as it being a cautionary tale? Maybe. But it’s still a film experience you’re likely to be talking about long after you leave the theater, if for no other reason than to cite it as yet another reason you’ll never be a mountain climber.
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur.
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense peril and disturbing images.