The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest” is a solid, gorgeous-looking docu marred only slightly by a tendency to bury the lead — namely, its subject, George Mallory. Retracing the steps of the famed British mountaineer (who died on the cusp of becoming the first man to scale Mt. Everest), director Anthony Geffen’s film includes sometimes-gimmicky attempts at stunt climbing, which don’t detract too much from the fascinating man, and equally fascinating mountain, at its center. Pic should be a worthy edutainment attraction in Imax release starting Aug. 6.
Author of the oft-quoted rationale for climbing Everest, “because it’s there,” Mallory was a turn-of-the-century adventurer in the vintage mold, sketching out the first plans for a route up Everest over the course of his multiple expeditions. When he finally attempted to surmount the peak in 1924, along with young companion Andrew Irvine, he was last spotted within shouting distance of the summit, only to subsequently disappear.
Mallory’s body continued to go missing until 1999, when climber Conrad Anker discovered it a good distance down from his last known location. The positioning of his well-preserved remains, as well as a few circumstantial details discovered with it (a photo of his wife, which he’d promised to leave at the summit, was missing), leads Anker to believe Mallory had in fact summited the mountain, and was on his way back down when he perished.
Anker and his crew (including young Brit Leo Houlding, seen scaling a sheer rock face without safety ropes in one of the film’s most spectacular sequences) attempt to retread Mallory’s exact steps in order to prove this theory’s viability, as well as sporadically using replicated gear from the 1920s (hobnail boots, silly-looking overcoats), the latter being a quickly abandoned idea that almost certainly looked better on paper. More impressive than their clunky attire is their resolve to scale the mountain’s incredibly treacherous Second Step, as Mallory and Irvine did — roped together with no other safety supports, armed with only picks and axes.
Strangely enough, climbing Everest now genuinely requires such handicapping to prove noteworthy, as the mountain has been all but retrofitted for amateur climbers willing to cough up the dough to be handheld all the way up (Sherpas had to remove the bolted-on ladders from the Second Step before the pair attempted to free-climb it).
Far more interesting is the pic’s portrait of Mallory through his letters and journals (read by Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Dancy, Alan Rickman and the late Natasha Richardson, alongside narration by Liam Neeson), revealing a devoted husband and father who had serious reservations about making the fateful climb, yet couldn’t bring himself to miss the opportunity.
Though not as spectacular as many pics lensed specifically for Imax, the film contains a number of awe-inspiring shots and a wonderful, computer-generated guided illustration of the entire path the explorers took up the mountain, and should look impressive on the giant screen (review screening was not on Imax). Technical specs are impressive, though the insistent score can at times be a bit ponderous.