Even before Everest starts rolling, the audience knows what to expect. Countless advertisements and trailers portray it as the harrowing journey of a group of so-called brave climbers seeking immortality atop the world’s highest peak. Within the first moments, we are made aware of the gravity of the situation through a brief, written history of Everest and the men who have summited it.
Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a master climber and owner of Adventure Consultants, is returning to Nepal with a close-knit group of experts in order to both rack up another notch in their Everest belts, and to lead a group of paying clients safely up the mountain. Inconsequential 3D graphics become vivid and full of life the moment the crew lands in Nepal. A bus ride through the crowded and colorfully-alive streets to Namche Bazaar displays a depth of feeling unlike any Mt. Everest movie before it. Yet the bustling streets — packed with confused-looking locals and cramped-in buildings — made me wonder if there was a much better film in and among these strung-together and bustling towns of Nepal. As tormenting as the real-life journey of Rob Hall and his compatriots certainly was, cinema can only portray so little of the agony that is slowly climbing up a cold, supremely steep incline.
During an impassioned speech in front of his assembled crew, 40 days before the scheduled ascent, Hall regales the team with tales of Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and George Everest, while pointing out that there is a reason they do not describe the climb in their brochure — it is almost entirely suffering. And the physical pain of which Hall speaks is far too abstract and personal a concept to convey effectively via film. To give Everest a proper cinematic impact, director Baltasar Kormákur and the writers (William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy) have injected the narrative with emotional backstories, side plots and enough slipping and falling to keep adrenaline rushing and hearts aflutter. A star-studded ensemble cast (ranking among the best ever) finds the likes of John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington and Michael Kelly acting their asses off while slowly becoming the only reason the movie exists.
To Kormákur’s credit, and I do not say this lightly, the 3D is utilized in a tasteful and narratively-cogent way. Bringing an objective measurement to the immeasurable magnitude of the Himalayas, making the danger tangibly apparent and seeing wispy cirrus clouds in the foreground promotes a significance to the feat that other mountain climbing films struggle with (Vertical Limit, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest). Although the director steers clear of the slog that is controlled, uphill walking, his insistence on contrasting the startling calm and hellish storms on the mountain engender a poignancy to the randomness of death-by-Everest, echoing his interpretation of the immense inner struggle experienced by the climbers, followed by the calm inevitability of hypothermic silence.
As impressive and excruciating as Hall and his team’s journey was, Everest fails to capture the specifics. Pulling on heartstrings and playing with tension, Kormákur and his team straddle territory occupied by similarly-minded, slick actioners on one side and biting emotional dramas on the other — neutralizing everything they have worked to build. Films about inconceivable human achievement have no room for the tediums of Hollywood pigeonholing and genre labeling. The deeds should speak for themselves, and when they don’t, it is a disservice to both the real people who have accomplished them and to the storytellers who chose to heighten the reality of an already unreal event.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.