A solid, workmanlike stab at instilling a sense of raw humanity into the disaster genre, Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest sadly falls short of the summit, an overstuffed cast ill-served by a script that cuts their arcs short before they’ve truly begun. Yet while it may fall short in the emotional stakes, it nonetheless provides a visually powerful testament to the disastrous 1996 climb, and with spectacle in spades, should really be experienced on the largest canvas available.”
Despite its IMAX 3D platform release and all-star cast, Kormakur’s faithful, grounded approach ensures that Everest remains rooted in a sense of verisimilitude that separates it from more rote disaster epics. His most recent work being forgettable Mark Wahlberg vehicles Contraband and 2 Guns, the Icelandic director’s workmanlike, unshowy approach proves a good fit for the material. At times, wide shots of the mountaineers’ festival-like resting camps are framed with a documentary-like realism, a direct result of filming largely on location and hence, adopting natural light. Surprisingly, 3D is used sparingly, yet effectively, enhancing depth of field and making wide shots of the mountain landscapes all the more impressive. For the most part, it’s subtle and well-implemented, the one scene that sees hunks of snow flying out at the audience jarring in isolation. The monstrous, dense sound-mix also deserves praise, compounding the terrifying confusion of the film’s claustrophobic, third-act.
Beyond its cacophony of technical bells and whistles, Everest is ultimately a highly reverential account of the 1996 tragedy, when following two competing expeditions ascent to the summit, a violent storm hit the mountain. William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay affords us a lot of time to get to know the film’s dense cast of characters, an approach that should lend the story more weight than it ultimately does. We’re gifted some lovely character moments for its core ensemble, consisting of group leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), frail mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and competing Mountain Madness team leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), and all give nuanced performances. Yet by the time the storm hits, we’re left with the sense that we have yet to truly understand any of these characters. Inevitably, with so many people up on the mountain, many of the supporting players are left out in the cold, barely registering before they meet their fate. Hence, the sense that a myriad of personal factors were at play on the mountain is established, but sadly never fully delivered upon. The presence of journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) provides a point of tension between Hall and Fischer, yet beyond an on-the-nose scene in which he asks the climbers ‘Why Everest?’, this thread goes by undeveloped, the journalist’s question failing to permeate the unknowability of the climbers’ ambitions. If there’s a silver lining to the overstuffed cast, it’s that few characters are defined in black and white terms, providing a grounded narrative in which ordinary people react to exceptional circumstances, with the exception of Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson’s Boukreev, defined by little else than a brazen ‘I don’t used oxygen’ bravado, occasionally feels like he belongs to a different film.
It’s testament to the strength of performances across the board that even the more loosely-defined, most rarely visited members of the troupe feel real. Clarke’s everyman quality is well-suited to ‘hand-holder’ Hall, his rarely adopted native accent further adds to the films air of authenticity. Both Hawkes and Brolin do much to instil a warmth into Hansen and Weathers, their double-act dynamic established in the first act making us long for a narrative with a less sprawling approach to its characters. Gyllenhaal maintains his winning streak as amiable hippie Fischer, nicely rounding out the edges of a character otherwise defined a tendency to prefix every sentence with a pronounced, ‘Man’. He provides one of the film’s all too few gut-punch moments late in the journey, when fumbling around his tent, the camera fixes upon a coughing, spluttering Fischer’s fear-stricken face, the realisation suddenly dawning upon him that he may never make it off the mountain. Of a densely populated cast, those that register include Elizabeth Debicki, Sam Worthington and Emily Watson, with Keira Knightley and Robin Wright filling the staple worried wife roles.
With its tasteful approach, enormous scale and even bigger cast, Everest strives to be the definitive telling of the folly of man in the face of the untameable elements. ‘Why Everest?’ asks Krakauer. ‘Because it’s there’, comes the reply. While the spectacle will no doubt overwhelm, you’ll be left about as limited an understanding of the characters in Kormakur’s well-played take on the tragic events of May 1996. For best results, see in as big a theatre as possible.