I said this during a recent review – I have a real weak spot for good, thrilling disaster/survival movies. For decades it has been a genre that has constantly found a place for itself on big screens. No catastrophe is too big and no disaster is beyond cinematic creativity. Now of course some of these films have been nothing short of disasters themselves, but still I often find myself captivated by the melding of large-scale peril with human emotion and survival instinct.
Enter “Everest”, the new movie from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain, ominously standing among Nepal’s Himalayas and armed with some of the most treacherous climbing conditions on planet earth. There is an almost mystic allure that surrounds Mount Everest and it has attracted climbers for years. Documented expeditions dating as far back as 1921 have helped to discover climbing routes as well as shed light on the mountain’s many dangers. Some have resulted in successful summits, but others have ended with disastrous loss of life.
“Everest” assembles a stellar cast to tell the story of two expedition groups and their attempts to conquer and eventually survive Mount Everest in May, 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is an expedition guide for Adventure Consultants. Among his clients are a lively Texan named Beck (Josh Brolin), a meek and timid mailman Doug (John Hawkes), and an experienced Japanese climber named Tasuko (Naoko Mori). They arrive at the base camp where they meet Rob’s team.
Also at base camp is the spirited Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a friendly rival of Rob’s who is there to guide a group for Mountain Madness. As conditions deteriorate and the window to ascend to the summit grows smaller, Rob and Scott agree to team up to try and get their groups to the top. But quickly complications mount as the mountain’s wealth of dangers hit the groups head-on. It turns into a man-versus-nature struggle where sheer survival becomes the ultimate goal.
“Everest” is a unique movie with a firm focus. It isn’t a film interested in serving up deep, fully developed characters. Nor is it interested in building layers of drama between its characters. It could be said that this is a weakness. Actually the film does give us tidbits that open up several of the characters albeit ever so slightly. We learn quite a lot about Rob through his reputation and interactions with his clients, co-workers, and especially his wife Jan (Kiera Knightley). There are also interesting glimpses into Beck and Doug’s backstories that help shape how we look at them.
But to my point, none of that is the prime focus of “Everest”. The film sets its sights on the climb. It grants insight into its characters but just enough to help frame its main focus – man versus mountain. The meat and potatoes of “Everest” is strength, endurance, and the human will to live violently clashing with the captivating, beautiful, yet deadly force of nature. Characters talk of accomplishment and fulfillment, but it all ultimately comes down to this conflict. That is what grabbed me and never let me go.
And perhaps most impressive is the sting of realism we get throughout the story. It doesn’t bomb us with big money moments or action-based contrivances. Everything that happens in preparing and especially during the climb feels organic. At times it is slow and methodical. Other times it is stressful and chaotic. And it is all captured with breathtaking awe. The visuals in “Everest” are stunning with several scenes literally causing me to exhale a deserved “wow”. Whether it’s the sheer beauty of the surroundings or capturing the climb itself, cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s mixture of CGI and on location filming is a sight to behold.
In the end “Everest” felt considerably different than I expected. It isn’t a brash, bombastic popcorn flick. It isn’t a by-the-books ‘real events’ movie. Sure, it has its big name ensemble cast and its share of visual ‘wow’ moments. But at the same time it felt small, concise, and restrained. The performances are exceptional throughout with actors filling in the character gaps and never allowing us to forget the human element. It’s harrowing, tragic, thrilling, and exhilarating. It could have easily been yet another disaster flick. For me “Everest” was much, much more.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS