Synopsis – A climbing expedition on Mt. Everest is devastated by a severe snow storm.
My Take – As the year is coming to a closure, we get yet another disaster flick with a huge star cast backing it up. What makes it different? Well (in my opinion) its a more human story, rather than just being a delicious VFX spectacle! Just like Gravity (2013), its focused on a conflict between humans and a hostile environment that never meant for us. The film is an unrelenting real-life disaster movie that strands you near the top of the world’s tallest mountain and dares you to imagine what it must be like to be part of an expedition to the top going horribly, horribly wrong. Its screenwriters, William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, respectively have films like Gladiator and 127 Hours to their names, and this film combines the muscular, sometimes sentimental force of the former with the sense of being party to an extreme physical endurance that made the latter so successful. This is a movie that’s as stunning and as majestic and as spellbinding as mount Everest itself. Even for many of us who’ve never been to Nepal, just the fact that it is the world’s highest mountain requires us to respect it from afar. And I think that’s what this film by director Baltasar Kormakur has accomplished, it respects the story, it respects the nature and it respects the memories of the lives lost during that tragic 1996 expedition. Spell bounding, both literally and visually, the film runs at 121 minutes while actively seeking to answer a very important question – why do people do it? More shocking than some of the most brutal moments in the film is the intricacy of the answer that most viewers won’t get until after the film. Based on an actual trip to the summit in 1996 that ended in tragedy, an air of doom hangs over, forcing you to wonder which of its endearing ensemble cast will make it down alive. The inevitability of death makes it all the more tough to watch. Who, as mountaineering jargon has it, will finish up “gone”? Maybe John Hawkes‘s gentle, unassuming postman, whose trip is part-funded by school kids? Or Josh Brolin‘s millionaire family man from Texas? Or Jason Clarke‘s affable team leader? Or Jake Gyllenhaal‘s extreme- sports dude? When we’re not squirming at the sight of deathly drops or feeling whipped by the weather, we’re plunged into the emotional distress of those left behind: wives played by Robin Wright and Keira Knightley, and base camp coordinator Emily Watson, who’s manning a satellite phone halfway down the mountain. The film crosses into soppy territory when it forcefully begs our tears, but Kormakur creates such a convincing world—the craft of this film is astonishing—that you’re willing to forgive its less delicate touches in favor of a totally compelling depiction of what it must be like to ascend to a place that’s heaven one moment and hell the next. The story follows New Zealand business team “Adventure Consultants” partners – guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) & base camp manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) in 1996. A time when the big mountain had been actually been conquered enough times that it was no longer the specter it once had been. That didn’t stop people from wanting to climb it, instead it ended up turning it into a business. They lead a team that contains a mix of of seasoned pros and moneyed amateurs, forking over fortunes to earn both killer views they get momentarily and probably most importantly thing of course, the bragging rights.
On one team you have the clients – ‘average’ guy, mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), the big Texan, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) and the one small Japanese woman, a 47 yr old climber of 6 of the tallest peaks in the world, Yasuko Namba (Naoki Mori) along with guides Hall, Andy “Harold” Harris (Martin Henderson) & Michael Groom (Thomas M. Wright) – on the other team “Mountain Madness” you have the college frat guy guide Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal) & Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who refuses to use oxygen even though they will be at a level noted by Hall as ‘Humans aren’t meant to function at the cruising altitude of a 747’. Having reached the summit and literally touched the peak — their moment of triumph – though problematic as issues with roping and lateness of the afternoon make the timetable of descent turn into a dire situation. A storm sweeps in before certain climbers have turned back. What follows is a brutal waiting game. Among those stranded in the inhospitable climate is Hansen, Harris & Hall – who finds himself curled up in a nook, patiently, almost inhumanly biding his time as numerous attempts to save him come and pass him by due to more storms. Trying to help them down along with Helen are medic Dr. Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), expert climber Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington) and some native guides. In the first half, we see the bonds and the triumphs of climbing the mountain, making it from camp to camp as each climber struggles to breathe and make it higher. There are a couple of scenes that are fairly intense with swooping camera angles that look down off the mountain that would make anybody feel dizzy and hold onto their seat arms. However, the turning point here is once several climbers reach the glorious peak of Everest and start their descent down, when a bad storm hits ferociously upon the climbers, which ultimately kills several people off. This second half is so intense and packed with a mighty sound from the speakers that I literally thought I was in the middle of this storm as well, and found myself bracing the seat in a panic. It almost seems like these people were on another planet, as most of us have never seen terrain or weather like these people experienced. Since this is a true story, we all know what happens, and it’s heartbreaking to watch the inevitable as Kormakur shows us the final moments with each climber and the base camp notifying their families. Despite some unnecessary background melodrama and the aforementioned zigzagging of the story, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur brings out an overwhelming amount of dread as the minutes pile up along with the body count. It’s one of the few moments in the film where you get a little premonition on what is about to happen. This is largely due to the way Emily Watson executes her role as the Base Camp coordinator and a person with remarkable insight. With its spectacular cinematography, this film brought me up to the summit of Everest in such a realistic, involving way. The camp spots on the majestic mountain which I never would have even dreamed of seeing, like the Base Camp (17,000 ft), the Balcony (27,390 ft) or the Hillary Step (28,740 ft), were right there in front of my eyes! We see everything along their snowy way — those elegant yaks, those serene Buddhist monks, all the way up to the legendary peak with the little flags summiteers have planted their as a sign of their successful conquest.
We will also see the various faces of the human spirit when challenged by the elements — from triumph, valor and brotherhood to despair, defeat and resignation. Thankfully, the very real dangers of the climb, like the wide crevasses to be crossed on rickety ladders, the icy wind burning the skin off your face, the nasty frostbite that could cost you to lose frozen body parts, or the avalanches that can rumble down on you at anytime, are to be experienced from the safety of your theater seats. Director Baltasar Kormakur does a fantastic job of blending two different movie styles together, the blockbuster style versus the documentary. If you are expecting to experience the same adrenaline rush as from watching movies with unreal plot of Man vs. Mountain, for instance Cliffhanger, you will not be satisfied with this film. Not that I didn’t like watching Cliffhanger back then, it was a fun roller coaster ride, but this one is a totally different beast all together as Rob Hall says in the movie. The emotions the film brought out in my case was insecurity, hopelessness and sadness but also I felt the presence of the characters in the first part of the film really well. They are of course no superheroes, like in so many of the films today, but ordinary people, just like you and me, but still not that ordinary, since they are different from most of us. Like I mentioned before the film is chalk full of star power; Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, the list goes on. Everyone is believable in this hostile environment, going from optimistic and adventurous to mortified and forced to fight for their lives. Each character is given a back story, some more drawn out and centered than others, and you get attached to most but not all of them. When the emotional blows hit, they hit hard for some, but not as much for others. Among the performances – Jason Clarke radiated a lot of warmth as compassionate New Zealander expedition group leader Rob Hall. His conversations with his pregnant wife Jan (played by Keira Knightley in a brief yet remarkable supporting performance) were touching and heartbreaking. Josh Brolin was loud and arrogant as the wealthy Texan climber Beck. John Hawkes was perfectly self-effacing as Doug, a poor working man whose climb was partially sponsored by school children. Despite his prominent billing, Jake Gyllenhaal has a small but likable role as an unconventional surfer-type rival guide. Sam Worthington was alright. Emily Watson was brilliant as the distressed manager Helen. On the whole, ‘Everest‘, is an intense, emotionally powerful, excellent audiovisual ‘experience’ that places the viewer right in the middle of one of the harshest terrains on the planet. Give it a watch!
Director – Baltasar Kormákur
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 121 minutes