Have you ever gone to a movie and thought you knew from the get-go who was going to live and die? You’re invested in their tale of survival, not because of feelings for the characters, but to see if your hunches play out. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a good tale of survival on the silver screen—I mean, an old-fashioned nai-biter that introduces an ensemble of interesting characters and pushes them to the breaking point. Who will live? Who will die? Who will deliver the most gut-wrenching death scene?
Honestly, my expectations weren’t high for “Everest” (giggle). These movies are so often the same formulaic affair, but “Everest” is an exceptionally crafted movie, with a great cast and breathtaking visuals. Based on a true story, “Everest” details the struggles of ascending the world’s highest peak and the subsequent hell storm that turns everything tragic. Rob (Jason Clarke) is a guide and experienced mountain-climber. His job is to get people up and down the mountain for a hefty chunk of change. Things don’t look good for Rob right out the gate, as he leaves his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), behind. It’s the cinematic equivalent of wearing a blindfold and running into a minefield.
Rob, the walking dead man, heads to Everest and meets up with the other corpses—err, I mean climbers. (See if you can figure out who’s going to die.) There’s Doug (the great John Hawkes), a blue-collar working man who is trying to live out his dream of conquering the world’s most menacing mountain. He wants to prove even the most average man can achieve his dreams. There’s Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a seasoned climber, dealing with some personal demons. Yasuko (Naoko Mori) is a veteran, who’s climbed six of the seven highest peaks in the world, with only Everest to go. Then there’s the super-handsome American guide, Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The first half of the movie does a great job introducing the characters and capturing the absolute misery of climbing Everest. As an audience, we know not everyone is going to make it. Director Baltasar Kormákur understands the value in letting us get to know these characters so their deaths will ultimately be more than another name to cross off the list. There’s also heightened drama of vents based on true stories. It separates the movie from other more fictionalized disasters like “Titanic” or “Poseidon.” In fact, “Everest” feels more like a drama than disaster movie.
At the heart of the film is a story about people who put themselves in an incredibly risky, life-threatening scenarios, if only for the glory of conquering the world’s highest mountain. That was the one thing that made the story seem sleight.
I remember watching “The Perfect Storm,” which detailed the story of a crew of fisherman who venture out into the depths of the Atlantic to find a good haul, only to be caught in the aforementioned “perfect storm” and die. At the end of the movie, someone’s giving a eulogy and says, “Everyone who served under Captain Billy Tyne was lucky to have served under him…” and I immediately shouted: “Except for the six people he just killed.” There’s no moment like that in “Everest,” but I felt the same kind of cynical feeling. As I watched people die some really brutal deaths, I questioned why. Why would someone risk their lives to scale a peak? Even the survivors didn’t walk away clean.
At the end of the movie, we’re treated to photos of their real-life counterparts and learn how Beck survived but lost his hands and nose to frostbite—his freaking nose. People pay for this privilege. I was able to sympathize with the plight of characters in peril, and felt awful about those who died leaving their loved ones behind. Never once did the movie make me think, “Well, it was worth it.” In fact, it almost seems like a cautionary tale.
There’s a line in the middle of the movie from a crusty old mountain climber who declares, “The mountain has the final say.” It totally does. On May 11, 1996, it took down some poor souls who were willing to risk their lives just to say they had reached the top. Haunting, tragic, and for me, utterly pointless.
On the technical merits alone, “Everest” is worth admission. The movie is a technical tour de force that makes the most of the big screen and surround sound. When so many movies try to sell the importance of the theatrical experience, “Everest” is only one of two movies this year I’d call a must-see in theaters (the other being “Mad Max: Fury Road”). This really is a big, beautiful movie with some earnest performances.
After “Terminator: Genisys,” I thought I was done with Jason Clarke. “Everest” got me back on board. He has raw talent. Jake Gyllenhaal continues to play the chameleon. After going skin and bones for “Nightcrawler,” then muscling it up for “Southpaw,” he shows up with a long mane and bushy beard. Hawkes and Brolin are really good, as well. There’s a lot to like here; in spite of the formula, it’s still a very engaging, entertaining jaunt.