Another Fall season begins and another natural disaster film graces our doorsteps. Balthasar Kormákur (2 Guns) crafts a tale of the failed expedition to Mount Everest on May 10th, 1996–portraying the majestic beast in all its glory. Though magnificent, the mountain is also unforgiving, as many hardened climbers have needed more than just determination, stamina and resilience to survive their adventure…
Written by the William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Everest follows the journey of two expedition groups caught between Mother Nature’s fury while climbing one of her truly most beautiful creations. The film also serves as one-half tragedy/one-half beauty, as both courage and loyalty take precedence among the misfortune.
Thanks to men like Kiwi climber Rob Hall played by Jason Clarke (Return to Planet of the Apes) and American Scott Fischer, Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain), the mountain had become almost incorporated. Numerous companies from around the world started guiding professional climbers to the top for hefty fees, using nothing but experience and local sharpas. With 19 successful climbs, Rob’s outfit company Adventure Consultants out of New Zealand was the most successful. Along with a base camp full of more teams to name, such as grizzled, he-should-be-surfing hippie Scott’s Mountain Madness team.
Leaving behind his pregnant wife Jan, played beautifully by Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean), Rob is joined on his 20th Everest climb by a motley group of customers. Strong in opinion and gusto is Texan Beck Weathers (Thanos! Josh Brolin), Seattle mailman Doug Hansen (Lincoln‘s John Hawkes) who unsuccessfully summited the prior year, and finally journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly‘s House of Cards), who is writing a feature on Hall’s team.
The first half of the film deals with the torture climbers must place on their bodies when acclimated to the harsh altitude climates. Kormákur portrays this exceptionally well, showing the damage the continued assents run on their bodies. A human is not meant to survive at those heights, or as the film terms it “the Death Zone.” Kormákur successfully captures all of the disaster film’s nail-biting attributes: characters cough up blood gasping for oxygen; mini-avalanches nearly topple Beck when he crosses a crevice on nothing more than a shaky ladder; etc. If you pick Everest as your weekend popcorn flick this week, pay the extra money for the vertigo-inducing 3D effects.
The film starts to lose its momentum in the second half, where horrid luck, fate and weather wreaks havoc on our climbers. Korm truthfully showcases the damage from frozen temperatures and weather as the final killer, but also takes steps to list the errors that led to the full disaster. From rotten ropes, missing oxygen tanks– even climbers throwing their lives away as they continue to climb past “turnaround times”.
With a such a strong cast and the biggest Mother Nature star in the background, the film’s true lacking is humanizing characters. Never is motivation explained for any of the climbers; hell, writer Krakauer asks the group at base camp, “Why climb Everest?” The resounding answer from all involved is simply, “Because it’s there.”
That said, the glue that holds this film together lies with many of the underused moments featuring Knightley and Texan Beck’s wife Peach (Robin Wright – also from House of Cards). As for the true emotional star of this film, that goes to Helen Wilton played by the great Emily Watson (War Horse); and, it’s understandably hard not to cheer for “the cement” that holds this mountain foundation together, as Watson displayed the vital tears and love she has for these ill-fated climbers. More impressively, she ties the audience to their fates.
Universal Pictures’ Everest snow-caps theaters this Friday, September 18th.