How do you make Mount Everest laugh? Make a plan, of course.
Plenty of intrepid climbers have made plans to summit the world’s highest mountain, and most live to tell about it. There have been more than 5,000 successful ascents as of 2013, but about 240 people have died on the mountain. Many of their corpses are still frozen on some godforsaken peak, ominous additions to the frightful topography.
Everest being a Hollywood adventure movie, you can guess which kind of expedition it presents. Based on the famous 1996 disaster that claimed eight lives and inspired at least four books, the film is a devastating reminder of nature’s cruel indifference to man. The 3D photography is arbitrary, but the movie deserves to be experienced on an IMAX screen, where D.P. Salvatore Tontino’s majestic aerial images best capture the infinitesimal size of humans against a landscape that will outlive us.
Directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur and written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, Everest makes little effort to rewrite the ageless formula for the disaster movie.
As expedition group leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) spends 40 days preparing his climbers for a journey that will push their minds and bodies beyond their limits, the screenwriters dollop their canvas with plenty of omens ignored, insecurities dismissed, tragedies barely averted. Famous last words litter the script like so many of Everest cadavers; if “I’ll be right back” isn’t used literally, its durable spirit hangs over many of the characters’ blithe interactions, while we brace ourselves for nature’s rebuttal.
What sets Everest apart from most disaster movies, however, is the sheer, sickening immersion of Kormákur’s direction. When the icefall tumbles and the storm rages and the oxygen expires and the contingencies fail and the frostbite begins, the decline is captured with hyperreal attention to visual, and especially aural, detail: the unrelenting winds overwhelming most attempts at speech, the excruciating crack of bones as bodies attempt to overcome rigor mortis. You feel this movie in your gut more than your brain. You might walk out of the theater with a sore throat, shaky knees, close-bit nails, throbbing ears and loose tear ducts — and that’s a compliment.
A kindred spirit to films as different as United 93 (the feeling of helplessly observing an unpreventable tragedy) and Gravity (the physically uncomfortable verisimilitude of watching humans fight for survival), Everest is perhaps most akin to a war movie. As competition among various group leaders — Jake Gyllenhaal, buried behind a Grizzly Adams beard, plays one of Rob’s initial rivals — yields to ego-shedding cooperation, the climbers begin to care for each other like wounded warriors on a battlefield. The desire to leave no climber behind is paramount to the film’s heart, even as it seals characters’ fates. And, while Kormákur is not fully above manipulating our emotions, he deserves credit for showing us death the way a good war picture would: sudden, unceremonious, matter-of-fact.
And as with the soldiers in an all-volunteer army, there’s something to be said for the fact that these climbers willingly embarked on the expedition, knowing and indeed thriving on the risk. Kormákur understands that these are people for whom a “normal” life provides insufficient meaning, who feel alive when confronting possible death. Otherwise, we understand, they’re like Jeremy Renner’s Hurt Locker character, flummoxed by the cereal aisle.
As a result, it’s hard to relate to these men (and one woman) on a personal level. They’re not like us. We commiserate with their suffering only to the extent we sympathize with the hardships endured by any fellow man. The film’s key question is asked, shortly before the five-day trek to the summit, by Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), the journalist who would pen Into Thin Air, the best-seller based on this disaster: “Why are you climbing Mount Everest?” Few answers will satisfy inquiring minds; the resounding response is, “because it’s there!”
As this most depressing of all blockbusters informs us, it always will be there —tempting daredevils, illuminating parts of the human condition most of us will never experience, and occasionally accepting sacrifices.
EVEREST. Director: Baltasar Kormákur; Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Clive Standen; Distributor: Universal; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at most area theaters