MOVIE REVIEW: Everest
"EVEREST"-- 3 STARS
Maybe it's the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal in the the new film "Everest" that's causing an obnoxious bell to ring, but this next statement is going to sound quite familiar to the opening volley from this website's recent review of the boxing flick "Southpaw." If you've seen one mountain climbing movie, you've seen them all. Line up the list that includes "Cliffhanger," "K2," "Vertical Limit," and others and you'll get the full salad bar of tropes and cliches. There's always a macho-hot-shot-alpha-male-star with cajones who tries to impress people. There's always a grizzled or sage veteran full of piss and wind. There's always the one token guy that gets hurt early and more easily identifiable "red shirt" casualties that follow. There's always a worried wife/girlfriend or two back home and everyone has beards (well, maybe not the wives and girlfriends). Lastly, there's extreme location shooting and physically thrilling stunt work that ends up redeeming the price of admission.
Marketed like a thrilling disaster film yet playing like a respectful drama, "Everest" still carries the sheen of every other Hollywood mountain climbing movie while offering enough of an eulogistic history lesson to be respectful of its true story. Based on the real 1996 events documented in Jon Krakauer's massively best-selling novel "Into Thin Air," astute viewers who know how it will all end will still be engaged and entertained through the cliches. Director Baltasar Kormakur ("2 Guns," "Contraband") veils the seams of Hollywood dramatization enough to not sour the experience.
In this film's time of 1996, with the advent of improved climbing guidance, technology, and safety, conquering Mount Everest had become an expensive commercial business bordering on a high-end tourist attraction. Rob Hall, a benevolent leader played by Jason Clarke ("Terminator: Genisys," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), was the operator and lead guide of one such outfit named Adventure Consultants. Jake Gyllenhaal's Scott Fischer, the more brash cool guy, was the lead on Mountain Madness. Accomplished climbers and amateur thrill-seekers alike would come to people like Rob and Scott for a chance at accomplishing the highest and best. With the presence of highly-regarded author Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) on Hall's expedition to document the experience for hopefully solid publicity, the two guides decide to work together to take their teams step-by-step to the summit.
The rest of Hall's team is comprised of assistant guide Andy Harris (Martin Henderson of "The Ring"), the macho Texan Beck Weathers (Oscar nominee Josh Brolin), ordinary mailman Doug Hansen (Oscar nominee John Hawkes), and female Japanese climber Yasuko Namba ("Doctor Who"'s Naoko Mori). Each have their reasons for going on this climb. "Avatar" star Sam Worthington is fellow professional climber Guy Cotter observing events. Hall's business partner Helen Wilton (Oscar nominee Emily Watson) is the den mother that runs base camp and radio communication and Keira Knightley and Robin Wright play two of the waiting-and-worrying wives back home. In this talented ensemble, even in the mold of the aforementioned and expected cliches, the acting holds up on every front, led by a nice leadership turn from Jason Clarke.
"Everest" recreates to methodical detail the steps of ascent, acclimatization, and heightened dangers of pushing one's body to the limit, especially within the "dead zone" beyond 26,000 feet where human life isn't meant to exist. A ticking and soulful score from composer Dario Marianelli for "Everest" cues too many obvious moments, but builds its tension slowly towards the famed tragedy that awaits these real-life characters. Again, for those that know this story, the outcome is destined. The trouble is casual viewers who don't know the real events are still going to see the cliched sentimental and arrogant "marked for death" clues coming a mountain range away. A good movie comparison would be "The Perfect Storm," but with much quieter results.
Using a nearly invisible blend of on-location shooting in Nepal combined with the Italian Alps as a stand-in, the cinematic visuals from director of photography Salvatore Totino ("The Da Vinci Code," "Any Given Sunday") stretch to every edge of the screen. The 3D effect is not as overpowering as you would expect from something like mountain climbing. However, the sheer size of what you're watching makes the IMAX ticket bump worth the price. The direction may be pedestrian, but the look of "Everest" is anything but and makes the most of its surprisingly modest, by today's blockbuster standards, $55 million budget.
With a screenplay of prophetic peril crafted by two Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, William Nicholson of "Gladiator" and Simon Beaufoy of "Slumdog Millionaire," Kormakur's film plays it straight with the facts and requires swallowing fewer grains of salt than most other disaster films. The cheese factor and the over-amped heroics are surprisingly low, considering how "Everest" is angling to be an IMAX-tailored thrill ride. Instead, the thrills are believable and quite palatable, which may come across as too slight to some viewers who were looking to squeeze their knuckles white on cup holders, arm rests, and spouses' hands. By skipping the dramatization and roller coaster route, the challenge level of "Everest" is low. That's the somewhat positive risk Kormakur, Nicholson, and Beaufoy made to tell this story calmly, which takes away some its potential to wow and inspire. For some, a clean-cut documentary will do the trick rather than the shorthand-written movie.
LESSON #1: MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IS TOO CRAZY AND DANGEROUS-- What kind of person you are will skew your like or dislike of "Everest" in a 50/50 fashion. Half of the audience will be the cautious people, likely right in line with Lesson #1. They will think the death-defying risks of mountain climbing are for the idiotic, elitist, and selfish. They will shake their head, wag their fingers, and be the living embodiment of all those "NOPE" memes you see on social media. They will watch "Everest" as an extreme cautionary tale of what they will never try to do.
LESSON #2: MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IS AN ACCOMPLISHMENT AND EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER-- The other half of the audience will find the idea of climbing Mount Everest to be, death and danger be damned, an addicting pinnacle desire. They will feel for the characters and buy into their encouraging or hubris-filled reasons for wanting to get to the summit. Risk is something right up their alley and they will respect and admire "Everest" hook, line, and sinker.
LESSON #3: ACCOMPLISHMENT AND SURVIVAL BECOMING COMPETITIONS-- No matter which audience half you occupy from Lesson #1 or Lesson #2, one of the most educational and eye-opening stances from "Everest" is stepping back and seeing the purpose of this 1996 journey. This was a business venture and a competitive one. The climbers featured in this true story were just a handful out of dozens that bought their way to Mount Everest that year. They were just the most famous to perish. From 1953 to 1987, only 200 people ever made it to the top of Mount Everest. From 1987 to 2013, that number mushroomed to 4,042 people combining for 6,871 trips to the summit. "Everest" is very honest about showing how the survival and accomplishment of this experience are a business competition. Like any business, the ones better equipped, greater skill, and cleaner track records of success and returns ascend while the others flounder or implode from failure, accidents, or broken promises. Bottom line, climbing Mount Everest isn't as exclusive as people think. The mountain doesn't want your business, but the appeal of it all as the tallest in the world provokes it anyway.