Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review - Everest

The Himalayas are an astonishing sight (or so I assume – never been there), and Mt. Everest reigns supreme. Drawing climbers from around the globe with the tantalizing challenge of standing at the very top of the world, Earth's highest mountain inspires awe, but what it deserves even more is reverence.
Beautiful things can be deadly, and this is no place for those who fear death.
It was a tragic lesson learned in the spring of 1996 when two commercial mountaineering outfits became stranded on the summit in the midst of a ferocious blizzard. Everest dramatizes this catastrophe extensively, cobbled together from what survivor accounts could be disseminated.

Unknown director Baltasar Kormákur was probably the least expected name to oversee a big-budget fall studio project with a large, starry cast. Accordingly, the movie he's delivered is not quite what you'd expect either. In fact, it's harder to peg down than ropes to an ice face in whiteout conditions.

Too intimate and character-focused to be a disaster epic; Too sprawling to be a character study; Too loosely fictionalized to be a docudrama (Jon Krakauer, author of a book on which Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson's screenplay apparently is not based, has taken umbrage with their liberal potpourri of POVs).
The closest thing Everest has to a lead is Jason Clarke as Rob Hall, main guide for the ill-fated expedition. But the focus spirals outward from him so frequently that you can't clock him at much more screen time than his fellow mountain-faring costars, who include Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes (an underrated treasure, as always), Mark Kelly and Sam Worthington among others.

They're all convincing enough of at playing ambitious everymen, but are given little in the way of character arcs beyond the physical failing of their bodies upon the world's most inhospitable peak. Truthfully, the cast members forced to do the heaviest lifting are Emily Watson, Keira Knightley and Robin Wright, all typically great but misused in thankless roles as worried women over the phone.

But script limitations aside, Kormákur's filmmaking is extremely durable. While multiple groups of characters staggering helplessly around different locations in a snow storm would normally be cause for confusion – as it really was that fateful day on the mountaintop – he unfolds the story in logical, comprehensive fashion. The assembly is tight and Glenn Freemantle's howling sound design gives Everest a frightful voice of its own.
Salvatore Totino's photography is perhaps more dramatically effective than visually dazzling, but considering the taxing location shoot it's hard not to be impressed. As for the 3D, it plants its flag in only a handful of aerial money shots, but goes largely unnoticed with an aesthetic that favours human faces over sweeping vistas. Makes sense, given Kormákur is clearly more invested in his ensemble than he is in the titular mountain.

Indeed, less patient adventure junkies may wonder why it's taking so long for the snow to hit the fan. And when the film finally does reach its harrowing final 40 minutes, they may be surprised at how dialed down the action becomes.
Less about dramatic avalanches and bottomless ice crevasses, more about people simply freezing to death.

In spite of all this gloom and doom, Everest holds you. Because Kormákur spends far more time acquainting us with his characters than he spends holding them in peril, none of them feel expendable. We're rooting for all of them. And every time one of them meets their horrible end, it lands like a mini gut-punch.

Documented history warns us not to expect one of those 'triumph of the human spirit' type movies. Quite the opposite, Everest is an occasionally thrilling yet ultimately sombre reminder of how easily the most willing spirit and the strongest flesh are humbled by the lethal, undiscriminating power of nature.
The mountain always has the final word.

*** out of ****


  1. Excellent as always! Thought you would see Steve Jobs or The Walk first however.

    Looks interesting enough. I'll have to check it out when it comes out on home video.

    1. Everest opened two weeks ago; Steve Jobs and The Walk don't go wide until today. How'd you figure I'd see them first?

    2. I guess that since the reviews for Jobs came up weeks ago thanks to TIFF, I got confused.

      I hardly have any idea what flipping year it is half the time.