“Everest” allows its stars to be beaten, bruised, scraped, and cut in a way few big Hollywood movies do. As a great amount of the film’s suspense comes from the question of survival—who will make it out alive?—I won’t comment specifically on the fates of those involved. But what I expected to be a spectacle, an event whose draw lies in the special effects and scale of high-stakes mountain climbing, turned out to be a picture of somberness and seriousness, of human will fighting one of the most inhospitable and unforgiving climates in the world. There is no typical studio cheese throughout, no element of comedy or light-heartedness. The sense of adventure that sends fifteen or so men to the mountain’s peak is quickly lost. It’s not an adventure—it’s a nightmare.
The film’s opening title cards inform us of the movement started by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a professional climber who started his own company, Adventure Consultants. Hall and his colleagues take ordinary people and take them to the top of Mt. Everest, all for the sum of $65,000 each. Some crave the rush, such as Beck (Josh Brolin), whose wife threatened to divorce him should he climb just one more mountain. Some are working towards something larger and more significant, such as Doug (John Hawkes), a mailman funded by children from his local elementary school. “If the kids see an ordinary guy achieve impossible dreams,” he tells his fellow climbers, “maybe they’ll be inspired to do the same.”
Hall is no longer alone in the industry. Fueled by his success, others, such as Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), have started similar enterprises. Fischer balks at the idea of working in tandem with Hall, citing the differences in their philosophies. “I don’t hold hands. If you can’t make it alone,” he says, “you shouldn’t be up here at all.” Hall is empathetic to a fault. He holds hands, he waits for the last person in line, and he risks his own safety to help others achieve their dreams. When Doug plants his homemade flag into the snow at the peak of Everest, he is doubled over, weak and wheezing. It was silly and irresponsible for him to continue; Hall tries to get him to give up, start the trek down the mountain. But he can’t. “There’s no next time for me,” Doug gasps. “I’m not coming back next year.” This is the film’s final moment of majesty.
“Everest” does not sugarcoat the events it portrays. Bodies are shown frozen and covered in snow. Climbers, delirious and frostbitten, plummet to their deaths as matter-of-factly as putting on a pair of shoes. It is important to remember that not everyone is a hero; to expect ordinary people to do extraordinary things is, in most cases, unfair. Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist doing a piece on Adventure Consultants, is called upon to help carry extra oxygen to climbers stranded on the mountain. No, he says. He cannot do it. He says, “I don’t want to die.”
Movies thrive on moving the action forward, on constantly creating new scenarios out of which drama and intrigue arise. For a while, “Everest” stands still. People are quite literally stuck, unable to move an inch in any direction for fear of slipping on ice or falling off a cliff. The movie has no issue with slowing things down, letting the drama come, not from new obstacles, but from old ones. It helps that enough time is spent creating characters we actively root for. Actors are given moments to act, a rarity in this kind of film, where the special effects are so expensive they need to be the star just to make them worth their cost.
On a related note, I regretted that the women of this film were given so little to do. Emily Watson, Kiera Knightley, and Robin Wright are all fantastic, and are up to their usual standards here as well. The latter two play wives to the mountain men, and Watson is the operator of Base Camp, a motherly figure. None of these women leave the house. Knightley and Wright are shown always over the phone, laying in bed or sitting on the couch, and Watson remains seated at the HAM radio. I’m not necessarily criticizing the movie. I’m also not trying to make a point about roles for women. But there was an expectation, for me at least, that they would have more screentime.
Maybe it’s this age of constant exposure, of seeing what actors are wearing on set and off set and in bed and at the beach and walking their dogs and out to lunch with their grandmas, but its strange to see beautiful people not look beautiful. That “Everest” takes A-listers like Gyllenhaal and even second-tier stars like Brolin and puts them through absolute hell was a little stunning to see. Their faces get red and blotchy, their noses run, they blubber and stutter and moan and groan. It makes for an effective and well-rounded experience. Baltasar Kormákur, along with screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, toe the line between drama and popcorn flick adeptly. Do I dare liken this to Spielberg?
To call this a mountain climbing movie would be a disservice to it. Sometimes there’s no one coming to save the day. Sometimes people can’t keep moving even if their lives do depend on it. Sometimes people accept challenges and fail. Does this make them weak or cowardly? No, it doesn’t. Let’s not call them stupid or arrogant, even if they maybe were those things. They’re human. The humanity in “Everest” makes it warmer than it has any business being.
Written by Lucas Dispoto