Despite being inspired by incredible events surrounding an attempt to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Everest opened the 72nd Venice International Film Festival to a rocky start.
The story is based on the real events of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, which led to the deaths of several climbers who were caught in a blizzard and died during their attempt to summit. It was a beautiful sunny morning on May 10, when Rob Hall, leader of New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants, and Scott Fischer, leader of the Seattle-based Mountain Madness, led their teams on a final ascent towards the highest point on Earth: the summit of Everest, 29,029 ft. (8,848 m).
The expectations for this film were high: such an epic story set in a breathtaking scenario could have worked wonders. But the flaws of the movie overcome the strengths. We observe images of men’s bodies getting devoured by the merciless mountain through 3D glasses, but they do not accentuate in any way what could have potentially portrayed the grandeur of the mountaintops.
If Alfred Hitchcock believed that “movies are real life with the boring parts cut out,” Baltasar Kormákur must be of a different opinion. The first hour serves as preparatory for the drama’s tragic twist. This first act depicts part of the teams’ two-month training process: climbers get acclimated to the extreme cold and the thin air at the high altitudes, and deal with oxygen levels so low that the simple act of walking can be utterly exhausting. Yet in over 60 minutes, we learn very little about the characters.
The only theme that resonates in the film is the metaphor represented by the challenge the climbers have set for themselves in overcoming the goal of reaching the Everest summit. All characters have a personal ambition in getting to the top, which reflects the existential balance they are seeking in their family life. Nevertheless, although we are given a bit of their self-examination, none of these introspective journeys find room for development.
Action kicks in when the two teams work their way up the colossal mountain and, with little warning, an unexpectedly violent storm engulfs the adventurers on the descent. There is no need for a spoiler alert, because if you’ve read the reports of the ‘96 events, you know how the story ends—who survives and who doesn’t. However, death doesn’t seem to create any sorrow in audiences since the first part of the narrative failed in making the characters empathic.
Despite Kormákur’s intent in shaping the adaptation into something realistic, the results are still rather poor. Even those who lack knowledge in mountaineering will notice how the movements of the actors are very improbable, just as the fact they talk way too much at peaks where there is a scarcity of oxygen.
The A-list cast seems to be a palliative treatment to fill in the missing gaps of a sloppy script, written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy. It is bewildering to observe how the promotion of the film seems to lure masses into believing Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightly have leading preponderant roles when in actuality they are marginal players of a choral narrative. Gyllenhaal’s talent is a total waste: we barely see him in the role of climber Scott Fisher, full of attitude and even more heart. But his mountain-man-bun makes him exceptionally decorative in the drama, and a potentially great testimonial for mountain shades.
Jason Clarke is possibly the only actor capable of moving us with his well-balanced embodiment of Rob Hall; especially in calibrating melodrama in a particular conversation he has with his wife Jan, interpreted by Keira Knightley, just before his descent.
Regarding Robin Wright’s performance, it is utterly amusing to see Mrs Underwood transformed into the butchy Texan Peach Weathers, who is inexorably engaged in being her husband’s problem-solver. The way the costume department tried to make her appear a little chubbier is rather clumsy, and perfectly matches the inadequate special effect make-up done to her injured husband Beck – played terrifically by Josh Brolin.
As for the rest of the performers, the list of top-notch stars is long (Sam Worthington, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, John Hawkes, Naoko Mori, Elizabeth Debicki, to mention a few), but insufficient to appraise the awe-inspiring journey of two different expeditions that challenged beyond their limits one of the fiercest blizzards ever encountered by mankind.
In the history of cinema, a much worthier tribute to Mount Everest was done by 2010’s documentary The Wildest Dream, an homage to the story of George Mallory, the first person thought to have reached the top of the mountain, but who disappeared before returning to base, and mountaineer Conrad Anker, the person who found his body 75 years later. There are also several narrative features that have been more effective on the call of the mountains, such as Sylvester Stallone’s action vehicle, Cliffhanger, 127 Hours with James Franco, and K2starring Michael Biehn.
Everest had the potential of being a great catastrophic blockbuster or a perturbing introspective indie flick, but ended up being neither. It gravitates in a limbo of uncertainty that dissipates the opportunity of capturing the allegory of man facing the unforgiving savageness of nature.