Boy meets girl in The Mountain Between Us, but they certainly don’t meet cute. Alex (Kate Winslet) and Ben (Idris Elba) are harried professionals making the best of a rotten situation.
She’s a photojournalist for The Guardian set to be married 24 hours hence to boring, gray-haired Dermot Mulroney. He’s a tall, dark and brooding neurosurgeon with a dying patient awaiting his scalpel back home. When their flight is canceled due to inclement weather, they’re stranded in Idaho, which sounds awful enough. That’s when the quick-thinking Alex decides to charter a private plane to Denver with a colorful pilot (Beau Bridges) and his loyal golden retriever. What … could … go … wrong?
No sooner have these industrious strangers exchanged onboard pleasantries than Beau Bridges has a stroke behind the controls. Within a few gripping seconds — effectively handled without a musical score — the plane plummets onto an unforgiving ledge of the High Uintas Wilderness, its destroyed hull jutting out of the endless whitecaps like a misplaced Pez dispenser. The crash kills the pilot and shatters the homing beacon, Alex’s cellphone and part of her right leg. Ben emerges with some bruised ribs and a romantic scratch on his cheek; the dog fares best of all.
Framed against the bleak, beautiful enormity of it all, and with only some almonds and airport junk food for sustenance, Ben and Alex are subject to a litany of tests — creating fire to melt snow for drinking water; facing down wild felids on the prowl; enduring sub-zero waters, frostbite and bear traps and all their attendant emotional and psychological ramifications.
But for a story of survivalist wiles in a pitiless environment, The Mountain Between Us is an oddly leisurely disaster flick. The sense of fatalism, dread and unbearable suspense that permeates every fiber of a film like Gravity or All is Lost is eschewed by director Hany Abu-Assad. His approach is closer to The Martian or Cast Away, leaving room for occasional humor and plenty of opportunities to sit back and relax amid a transparently blooming romance.
Thus, even when disagreements surface and resentments fester, they have the feel of lovers’ quarrels injected into the paint-by-numbers screenplay at calculated intervals. Even the sundry challenges our heroes encounter play less like nature’s caprices than like increasing levels of a schematic Survivor-style reality show, bringing the contestants ever-closer with each escalating terror.
By the time the inevitable happens, and flesh meets undulating flesh while Abu-Assad’s camera inelegantly elides the naughty parts, the movie’s early patina of rugged realism lies in tatters. From its framing to its editing to its narrative conception, the sequence is pure Harlequin fantasy, and it sets in motion a final act so embarrassing that it presents as parody.
Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe penned the stilted, on-the-nose screenplay from a book by Charles Martin, and even before the movie’s inexorable decline, the dialogue reeks of writerly ostentation. Prior to the crash, Ben justifies his playing of Candy Crush on the plane by man-splaining to Alex that, “I need to occupy my amygdala.”
That Elba delivers this turkey with a straight face is the work of a gifted yeoman, and Winslet matches him every step of the way, improving on the leaden words with immersive, invested performances. But Weitz and Goodloe give their game away late in the film, leaving Winslet no choice but to utter this Freudian slip with as close to a poker face as she can muster: “It would never work,” she tells Ben. “Not in real life.”
I could not agree more.
THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US. Director: Hany Abu-Assad; Cast: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Dermot Mulroney, Beau Bridges; Distributor: Fox; Opens: Friday at most area theaters