It says a great deal about the human condition that some people would spend tens of thousands of dollars to climb one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
One early scene in director Baltasar Kormakur’s survival thriller perfectly illustrates this point: a climber totters above an unfeasibly long drop into a deep trench of ice and snow. He’s standing on a rickety ladder most of us wouldn’t use to climb up into a loft. Just as the climber gets his footing, a nearby sheet of ice the size of a double decker bus shears off, leaving the ladder shuddering in its wake. For most of us, this is the kind of situation we’d pay thousands to avoid.
Based on the tragic true story of a 1996 climbing expedition, Everest assembles the kind of starry cast that wouldn’t look out of place in a 70s Irwin Allen disaster movie. It’s an ensemble piece, but Jason Clarke and James Brolin are the focus for much of the story, with the likes of Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington and Emily thrown in for good measure.
Clarke plays Rob Hall, a professional climber who leads parties of amateurs on five-figure expeditions up the side of the highest mountain on the planet. Brolin plays Beck Weathers, a doctor and seasoned amateur climber who lives for the challenge of mountaineering; it’s when he’s back home with his wife Peach (Robin Wright) and two kids, he says, that the black clouds of depression come rolling in.
Also along for the climb are Jake Gyllenhaal as Scott, who runs a rival climbing firm, Doug (John Hawkes) as a middle-aged postman who wants to inspire his kids by achieving the superhuman. Less meaty roles go to Keira Knightley as Rob’s wife Jan, Emily Watson as expedition organiser Helen, and Sam Worthington as Guy, another pro climber.
Viewed in IMAX 3D, Everest revels in the grandeur of its frighteningly fickle landscape. Helicopter shots soar above the stony crags as chill wind licks the endless expanses of snow. Here, clear blue skies can give way to apocalyptic storms within a few breaths.
Told in linear fashion from the start of the expedition in March 96 to its culmination in May, Everest spends its first third setting up the friendly rivalries between Gyllenhaal and Clark’s climbing companies. It’s an important point of the story, to be sure, but too much time is spent on the practicalities of the trip and its planning, and not enough on giving each character the spark of inner life. Like The Phantom Menace’s endless talk of trade agreements, Everest’s macho rivalries are a distraction rather than an enhancement. Dialogue proves to be a particular problem for Everest – surprisingly so, given that it’s the work of two respected screenwriters, William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionnaire, 127 Hours).
Workmanlike at best, Everest’s script frequently leaves an otherwise great actor like Emily Watson, already stuck in a flimsy role back at base camp, with the thankless task of uttering such banal lines as, “Good luck and godspeed to you all” and “Thanks for dropping by.” Gyllenhaal spends much of the film lying down or drinking, while Keira Knightley is seldom seen without a telephone pressed to her ear.
What Everest achieves technically shouldn’t be discounted, however. It says much about the quality of the film’s production that you don’t even look for the stunt doubles or special effects. Like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, you quickly surrender to what Everest presents to you; there’s no question that it’s the real Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin or Jake Gyllenhaal climbing the side of Everest, even if the cold logic of health and safety and insurance companies tells you that this can’t possibly be the case.
Climbing ropes up sheer faces looks truly dangerous. A brief sequence involving a helicopter is borderline heart-stopping. But even this praise comes with a caveat. Salvatore Totrino’s cinematography lacks the waltzing rhythm of Gravity or the sickening sense of danger found in Touching The Void, Kevin McDonald’s documentary about another terrifying climbing incident. There’s a technical brilliance to what Totrino has achieved, for sure, but also a certain lack of poetry, an absence of visceral impact. We know in our minds when something wonderful or terrible has happened, but we don’t feel it in our gut.
Everest falters, then, but sonically, it soars in its moments of crisis. It’s here, when the wind roars, the thunder cracks like the wrath of God and tiny shards of ice tinkle against freezing rock, that Kormakur’s film springs horrifyingly to life. These sounds are, undoubtedly, Everest’s soundtrack and dialogue. The power of the sound design is such that, when Kormakur cuts to a safe place thousands of miles away, the contrasting silence is nothing less than shocking. Everest is, therefore, a film to be heard in a multiplex and not just seen.
A better version of Everest could have eschewed dialogue entirely, opting instead for a monosyllabic tale of survival akin to JC Chandor’s sublime All Is Lost. As it is, Everest is a technically impressive yet dramatically compromised depiction of a chilling real-life event.
Everest is out in UK cinemas on the 18th September.
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