In May of 1996, a large collection of climbers attempted to scale the perilous heights of Mount Everest. Led by expedition leader, New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), most of the party were experienced climbers, including Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) a doctor embarking on a personal mission to climb the Seven Summits, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman who had made a previous run at Everest the year before. Rob’s group also consisted of a journalist, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), on assignment to document the voyage. A parallel climbing party, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), forged an uneasy alliance with Rob’s to increase overall safety with greater numbers. Back at base camp is Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), running Rob’s operation from a safer distance, while Rob’s pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) wisely stays home, confident in her husband’s expertise keeping him safe.
This is the setup for Everest, the dramatization of the true story of this disastrous excursion. Mount Everest, never a safe destination point under the most optimal circumstances, proves catastrophic for these thrill seekers, as a series of brutal storms conspires to rob the climbers of their personal triumph and, for many of them, their lives. Some reach the top, some make it back alive, but none would walk away from this experience feeling victorious.
The first hour of Everest proves nearly as difficult to surmount as the mountain itself. As we are introduced to each member of the climbing party, it becomes readily apparent that none of these actors are being granted roles rich with characterization. There’s a general bonhomie among the climbers that never surpasses the level of blandly genial. Similarly, the muted animosity between the rival parties never reaches anything approaching a boiling point of hostility, never resulting in something like compelling tension. This entire first half is crafted so that watching these people climb, largely without incident, is the only objective, and impressive vistas aside, that minimal level of dramatic investment, coupled with the minute character development, doesn’t give the audience much of a rooting interest in anything. The last thing anyone could call climbing Mount Everest would be boring, but that label fits neatly with the experience of watching others do it.
Of course, the relative uneventfulness of Everest’s first half is clearly calibrated to lull the audience into a sense of calm before all Hell breaks loose in the second half, as it inevitably does. When a vicious storm takes hold while the parties are approaching the summit, the climbers gets scattered. Rob is stuck at the top with a rapidly fading Doug, while Beck finds himself too weak to retreat. It’s here that Everest essentially becomes misery porn, as we watch the climbers gradually succumb to death and frostbite, helpless to do much to save themselves from the elements and out of range for outside rescue. Apart from one character’s miraculous second wind of endurance, this is not a story of heroics or tyranny of will leading doomed men to persevere against treacherous odds. This is a tragedy, plain and simple, yet the film’s weak characterization, or even ability to adequately distinguish these mostly bearded, parka-covered men from one another, makes it very difficult to become emotionally engaged in any of their fates.
It’s hard to fathom what attracted this impressive assemblage of actors to this film. None of these roles give performers as exemplary as Gyllenhaal and Brolin much to do beyond looking miserable and cold. Everest doesn’t look like it was an enjoyable film to make on a physical level, but the characters are so thinly defined that it’s impossible to surmise what the professional rewards were for the cast, either. Gyllenhaal, in particular, has become one of our most interesting actors, so to see him used to such little effect here is dismaying, to say the least.
Everest is impressively shot, if nothing else. It feels effectively harsh and unforgiving, and it’s impossible to discern just how much of the film was greenscreened given its level of you-are-there authenticity. Though apart from an overhead shot of the group crossing a suspension bridge at the outset of their journey, the film makes astonishingly minimal effort to convey the dizzying heights of its locale, even to the extent that a lowbrow actioner like Cliffhanger once did. Everest exploits one’s fear of freezing to death far more acutely than it does one’s fear of heights.
Walking out of Everest, there is little to recommend beyond basic filmmaking acumen. There isn’t much to glean here beyond the experience of watching people climb and die, both occurring with grueling sluggishness. The greatest takeaway from the film is, quite simply, how nice it feels to walk outside into a warm September evening after it’s over.
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