Following the 2014 and 2015 avalanche disasters that killed more than 35 people trying to scale the highest mountain on Earth, the timing is either wildly inappropriate or grimly right for “Everest,” though it would be awfully hard to argue that it’s too soon. A properly grueling dramatization of the ill-fated May 1996 expedition that saw eight climbers expire in a blizzard, this brusquely visualized, choppily played epic serves as the latest cinematic opportunity for Mother Nature to flaunt her utter indifference to human survival. Achieving fitful flurries of emotion amid an otherwise slow, agonizing descent into physical and dramatic paralysis, director Baltasar Kormakur’s latest and biggest U.S. studio effort should ride its Imax 3D event-picture status to decent theatrical returns worldwide, aided by a topical resurgence of interest in the movie’s subject. Still, with its more stolid than inspired execution, it’s unclear whether the Sept. 18 Universal release can reach its desired commercial apex.
With little still known about the three Indian climbers who died on the mountain’s north face on May 10-11, 1996, “Everest” understandably focuses on the more widely documented experiences of the five who perished on the south face. No single source is cited as inspiration for the screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy (who know a thing or two about wilderness survival stories, having co-written “Unbroken” and “127 Hours,” respectively), though the press materials mention books written by two American survivors of the climb: Jon Krakauer’s bestseller “Into Thin Air” and Beck Weathers’ “Left for Dead: My Journey Home From Everest.” A few other accounts were also published, including “The Climb,” by the Russian Kazakh mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, who disputed key details in Krakauer’s version of events. Still, it’s Boukreev (played by Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson) who concedes the silliness of arguing about who did or said what. As he notes, staring up at the 29,029-foot-high colossus that awaits him and his fellow daredevils: “The mountain always has the last word.”
Sharing that fundamental respect for the danger of their undertaking is New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the cautious leader of an expedition guiding company called Adventure Consultants, which helped popularize the climbing of Mount Everest in the early 1990s. In April 1996, we see Hall bidding farewell to his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), and heading to Kathmandu to meet the eight clients he’ll be leading up Everest. They include Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texas native who seems determined to conquer Everest on cocky charm alone; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman who’s already got six of the Seven Summits under her belt; and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a humble Seattle mailman who’s taking another stab at Everest, having made it within a few hundred feet of the summit in 1995.
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There’s also Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a high-profile journalist whose presence is a source of some early tension between Hall and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a real nightcrawler of a beard), the leader of a competing expedition company called Mountain Madness. Hall tries to broker a truce and suggests the two teams join forces during the climb; much discussion ensues about important, barely comprehensible matters involving fixed ropes and oxygen tanks. Meanwhile, as both teams make their ascent from one mountain camp to the next, the movie spits out so many rapid-fire destination names and altitude statistics that you wonder if any of it will be on the final. On a certain level, though, it’s clear that the shallowness of the character interplay and the sketchiness of the details hardly matter: The mountain will settle everything soon enough.
As the climbers acclimatize to conditions at the South Base Camp (17,598 feet), Adventure Consultants coordinator Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) briefs them on the potential perils of their journey, which we see illustrated in an effective bit of B-movie foreshadowing: Climbers can lose motor function, cough up blood and even succumb to a form of stealth hypothermia that makes them feel as if they’re burning up. A step above 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) will take them into the “death zone,” a realm of pure entropy where their goal is to make it to the summit and back as quickly as possible, lest they succumb to frigid temperatures, tricky terrain and dangerously thin oxygen levels. “Why climb Everest?” Krakauer asks his teammates before they begin their big push upward, and though we hear a few of their responses (i.e. “It would be a crime not to”), the grim developments to come feel all but designed to frustrate a satisfactory answer.
There is, to be sure, the impossible thrill of reaching the summit, planting your flag and taking in the unbeatable view. But getting to that point will require a person to cross rickety bridges over staggering thousand-meter drops, navigate treacherous mountain passes with poor visibility, maintain their balance when unexpected avalanches strike (which is distressingly often), and deal with an ever-waning oxygen supply. Is the sheer level of danger an enticement for some? Kormakur never sufficiently individuates his characters to answer that question. He’s too busy setting some of them on a course for death to fully tap into the obsession that gives them life.
And in a way, this proves to be a thoroughly reasonable, even refreshing dramatic strategy. This is a movie not about a few human beings who tried to conquer a mountain, but rather a mountain that took no notice of the human beings in its midst. Kormakur doesn’t make the mistake of exalting his subjects as extraordinary individuals, or suggesting that they were obeying some sort of noble higher calling. “Everest” is blunt, businesslike and — as it begins its long march through the death zone — something of an achievement. The specifics don’t get any clearer, but editor Mick Audsley’s cross-cutting among the different climbing factions creates its own propulsive logic. We get to know the characters not just by their appearances and personalities, but by their different positions on the mountain, where many of them find themselves trapped as a freak storm sets in.
Death seeps into the picture slowly, practically on tiptoe. At times it proceeds with an almost merciful swiftness, but for most of those who succumb, the process is brutally slow and drawn out: Their steps get shorter and slower, their breaths quickening into futility, and eventually the camera plants itself next to them and watches slowly as all blood, sensation and feeling drain away. With the exception of one miscalculated sequence involving a sun-dappled hallucination, “Everest” is strikingly unsentimental; under such cruelly elemental circumstances, the usual platitudes about perseverance and love winning the day simply cease to apply. There is only death and survival here, and the human spirit, it turns out, has little to do with any of it.
The mountain in question is no stranger to the bigscreen, and viewers hoping to see it in all its glory might do well to start with a documentary like the landmark 1998 Imax film “Everest” or 2010’s “The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest.” For all the resources that Kormakur and his crew have expended on persuasively re-creating a Himalayan climb (shot on location in Nepal and the Italian Alps), their “Everest” seems more concerned with verisimilitude than visual rapture. Kormakur, working in the quick-and-dirty style he demonstrated in his earlier Hollywood outings (“Contraband,” “2 Guns”), isn’t one to linger on even the most staggering images that pass before his camera; while the landscapes do benefit from the eye-popping quality of the 3D, the overall aesthetic strategy here might be boiled down to “Beauty is for wusses.” (There were points at the Imax screening attended in which certain details of Salvatore Totino’s generally crisp cinematography looked weirdly indistinct.) The most transporting element of the technical package may be the superior sound design and mix, in which the ever-present howl of the wind and the scrape of boots on snow are kept in just the right balance with the characters’ voices.
If the film is weak on characterization, the actors provide strong links nonetheless. Clarke, typically cast in roles that take advantage of his gift for brutish menace, does some of his most appealing work as a patient, meticulous and unfailingly loyal team leader. Brolin and Hawkes are superb as two climbers whose abilities aren’t entirely equal to their ambitions, while Sam Worthington provides a sturdy anchor as Hall’s friend Guy Cotter, a seasoned climber who helps try to navigate the climbers to safety from base camp. Mori’s Yasuko, the lone female climber on the Adventure Consultants team, stands out as a figure of sweet yet unshakable determination, while Watson is heartrending as the team’s coordinator and den mother; beyond the mountain, Knightley and Robin Wright give deeply felt performances as women haunted by the possibility that they may have seen the last of their husbands.
Given that the cast of “Everest” includes 11 real-life Sherpas, it’s a shame we don’t see more of them in action or learn more about their crucial, underappreciated role in helping climbers realize their goals (audiences looking to learn more would do well to seek out Jennifer Peedom’s “Sherpa,” a documentary that’s presently making the fall festival rounds). Likewise, those hoping for a critically nuanced inquiry into the downsides of Himalayan tourism won’t find it beyond the movie’s fairly unambiguous cautionary tale. David Breashears, who co-directed the 1998 doc of the same title, wore many hats on the set of Kormakur’s film: He’s credited here as co-producer, second-unit Everest d.p. and yak wrangler, and indeed they are nothing if not well wrangled.