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At one point in Everest, a member of an expedition to summit Earth’s highest mountain is in great peril as a horrific storm batters the climbers and leaves him stranded near the top. Still able to communicate by radio to the crew at the base camp, his situation is desperate as they urge him to keep descending. To further motivate him, they patch in, via a satellite phone, his pregnant wife back home, who is a climber herself and seems fully aware of what this phone call really is yet does her best to encourage her failing husband to push on. The moment evokes a scene strikingly similar to another film that, interestingly enough, goes in the opposite direction, at least in measurements of height and depth. In James Cameron’s 1989 undersea epic The Abyss, a wife calls down to her husband, who is lying at the bottom of the Marianus Trench, the lowest point on Earth and begs him to pick up and move on after he seems trapped and unwilling to try. Both are urgent, emotionally draining, and very effective.
I bring this up because while Everest is a technically well made film that features some solid performances and lots and lots of scary high altitude CGI (mixed with some real Nepalese mountain locations) it feels very familiar and trudges along, breathlessly hitting all the requisite marks in the genre. But honestly, what else can it do? There have been many films of this type and like a NASCAR race that can only feature cars going round and round with most viewers waiting for the crash, a mountain climbing film can only feature people walking straight up with viewers waiting for them to fall. Granted, there are some truly glorious visual moments, especially before the inevitable tragedy begins but there is something hollow about the overall experience. Whether that is the fault of editing or scripting, it has many moments that lose much of their intended impact. There is a distance to the characters that keep us from feeling sympathetic, not to mention almost all their screen time has them in full body winter climbing gear with their faces completely covered, leaving us trying remember who was wearing what color as the only way to identify them. We strain, like the characters in the film fighting their way through the storm, to see who is whom.
The events of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, at the time the largest single deadliest day (and season) on the tallest mountain in the world, have been well documented in a number of books and films, and now is this telling, a 3D CGI big budget British-American venture directed by Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns). While it spends a lot of time on Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) one of three guides for and company founder of Adventure Consultants, which pioneered the commercialized climbing trade of Mount Everest, we meet many of the people who were part of that fateful expedition. Each have their motivation and fears, but we are not given much time to know them well enough. When big Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) shows up, he is precisely as he suggests himself to be, and while he is only one of two climbing characters to be given any glimpse of a life outside the expedition, it is brief but at least shows some personality and motivation for his actions. The rest of the cast of are reduced to spewing tired lines like, “I’m done, you go,” while others, such as Sam Worthington, Emily Watson, and Robin Wright are basically cameos who spend their time waiting and worrying. One, however, the above mentioned wife, is played by Keira Knightley, who isn’t part of the actual climbing team, is seen only for a few minutes and is pregnant most of the time, but comes off with some of the best moments, giving the cliched part (although entirely true) some much needed humanity.
Humanity may seem like the wrong word, but the people this film portrays are certainly anything other than human. As least in the traditional sense. The effort and determination and skill and sheer craziness it takes to even consider what the climbers of this mountain undertake to reach the summit is staggering, and the film does an admirable job of giving us an inside peek at what that process might be like. The frightening number of terrifying and deadly situations that the climb entails is truly one of the more daunting aspects of the story. Death it seems, can come in endless horrific forms from falling off aluminum ladders strung like webbing over seemingly bottomless ice crevices to avalanches that appear to tumble endlessly along any stretch of mountain they are on. Rob warns that humans at that height are literally dying with every breath. But no one blinks an eye and all can’t wait to start. Naturally, from the safe, warm comfort of our theater armchairs, viewers are meant to ask, “Why?” and the film has an amusing little scene in a tent at one base camp where they try to explain. Doug Hanson (John Hawkes), a mailman, replies that if his kids can see a man follow impossible dreams, maybe they’ll do the same. Everyone else echoes Mallory: Because it is there.
Perhaps that is the best reason to see this film as well. For most, Everest is a mystery, a name synonymous with great beauty and great loss, a place only the truly adventurous (and very rich) can see. Like many of the world’s natural wonders, it has a lure, and a mythical quality that makes it endlessly fascinating. The names of the people portrayed in this film are real and their stories are at times unfortunate but mostly inspiring. While watching Everest, this is easily the most affecting part of the film. It is impossible not to ask, “What would I do?” And while the movie boasts some truly impressive moments of scale and realism, it doesn’t make the heights it tries hard to reach.