When The Mountain Between Us was first pitched, it must’ve sounded stunning. Man and woman pitted against the elements! Love and trust blossoming in deep snow! Idris Elba and Kate Winslet! What probably wasn’t mentioned is that The Mountain Between Us is also a time travel movie. How else can you explain a new studio epic so clearly resembling the schmaltzy star vehicles of 20 years ago?
Indeed, here is one of those movies they don’t make anymore. A grand adventure for adults; a fantasy with nary a cape or a magic wand that still nevertheless casts a mighty spell via marquee power. But spells only go so far, and even with Winslet and Elba’s ample chemistry, this really is at times a resigned trudge through the muck. Also, as nice as it is to have a nostalgic return to this generally appealing, star-powered entertainment from the 1990s, there’s not much else that appeals in this straightforward studio soap.
Set just after a visibly white Christmas, two people are desperate to get on a plane—any plane—that will fly them from the west coast to the east. The first of these two star-crossed passengers is Alex Martin (Kate Winslet), an award winning photo journalist who is often shooting in hot spots and war zones, searching for the next scoop. But on this flight, she just wants to get home to New York where she’s scheduled to marry Dermot Mulroney’s dull Mark in only a few hours. Meanwhile, Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) is a neurosurgeon desperate to make a connecting flight to London where no less than a patient’s brain hangs in the balance!
Yet both see their shared flight canceled due to weather and make the rather unwise decision to charter a private flight from Beau Williams’ Walter, a pilot with “Dead” practically painted on his wings. Sure enough, while high above the Rocky Mountains, Walter experiences a heart attack that sends them all hurtling toward the snow. In the aftermath, Alex has a broken leg and Ben has two unexpected patients between this strong-willed woman and the friendly dog whom Walter left behind. Between the two, Ben prefers the dog.
But on lonely cold nights, with nothing but each other and a fire to keep them warm, and slowly grimaced backstories involving ended marriages and frustrated careers, maybe—just maybe—these two’ll discover the greatest high found up here is with each other.
The Mountain Between Us is a glossy and decidedly slight studio effort which turns survival and suffering into the stuff of dime romance novels. Framed with postcard perfect vistas, director Hany Abu-Assad dutifully delivers a handsome-looking picture. There are many, many shots of Elba and Winslet wading through slush that rises up to their waists, but with the sunsets captured just right behind them, and with the nameless dog happily bounding through the white beneath their feet, it is nothing less than a slightly more extreme sports version of a Currier and Ives print.
Not that this is wholly bad news. Even if the film is a wintry get away, and an icy Blue Lagoon for a more mature audience, it could still work on those merits. And at times it does thanks to the efforts of Winslet and Elba. In a welcome subversion of audience expectations, Winslet’s Alex is the tougher of the two. Despite a bum leg, she is able to fight off a mountain lion when cornered with only a flare gun. She is also the one who more or less shames the good doctor when he wishes to sit and wait for a rescue. To hell with that! You can stay here if you want, but me, a crutch, and Benji over there are walking down! And as a hunky medicinal enigma, Elba smolders with intensity as he runs behind her, especially as he dutifully tends to Alex’s frequently reinjured leg.
Fiancé? What fiancé?
Unfortunately, these elements are the real set-pieces, and scenes of them actually trekking across a precariously thin lake or facing the danger of a snowstorm are more the film’s window-dressing than tenuous obstacles. Which might be fine if the drama between Alex and Ben did not flatly play as a constant role reversal of one of them having moments of doubt, and the other saying “No, we’re going to make it.” And then a steamy scene by a fireplace in an abandoned cabin later, it will be Alex’s turn to breakdown and send the other away… before breathlessly chasing after him to also tag along.
Less a story of survival than a star vehicle having to endure copious amounts of filler, The Mountain Between Us is lightweight entertainment that mistakes the charisma of its leads as a source of grandiose drama. And even at only an hour and 43 minutes, it still limps along in a far too drawn out denouement. Nevertheless, it reinforces that we can watch Elba and Winslet in just about anything, including this. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t also enjoy them in something that would actually melt the heart, as opposed to this frigid affair.
The Mountain Between Us opens Friday, Oct. 6.