Film Review: Everest

Meticulous account of a doomed 1996 expedition to the peak of Mount Everest impresses with its arduous location shooting and moments of high tension.
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If you’ve ever fantasized about climbing Mount Everest, the big-scale adventure film Everest will give you a virtual sensation of the real experience and serve as a blunt warning that such an undertaking can spell tragedy for even the most competent and fearless thrill-seekers. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s formidable production is a methodical, immersive recreation of the 1996 expedition in which experienced guides and their adventure-loving clients faced unexpectedly treacherous weather conditions that resulted in grim fatalities. If you’ve read the news reports or the firsthand account of author Jon Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air, you’ll know who did and didn’t survive. If you haven’t, well, destiny doesn’t always align with the expected turns of a movie narrative.

The script by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) favors verisimilitude over conventional thrills, painstakingly illustrating the process behind a professional trek up Everest, including the lengthy pre-climb period in which the risk-takers must get acclimated to higher and higher altitudes. To the film’s detriment, the first half includes too much technical detail of little interest to non-climbers and too little characterization of some key players. But foreboding appears early when it becomes clear that the growing popularity of the climb as the ultimate in adventure tourism is creating a degree of chaos and jeopardizing safety precautions.

The non-mineral “rock” at the center of the film is New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the expedition leader from Adventure Consultants; he’s even-tempered, level-headed, supportive, the kind of man who inspires trust from a novice climber. Heading a rival firm, Mountain Madness, is self-styled “rock star” Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a bearded nonconformist with a decidedly cavalier, bad-ass attitude toward his daunting job. Hall’s most demanding client is pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a boisterous Texan whose brash manner hides his brooding true nature. Also on the climb are Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) a Seattle postal worker who is determined to reach the summit after being forced to turn back a short distance from the peak the previous year; Outside magazine correspondent Krakauer (Michael Kelly of “House of Cards”), and Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), a plucky Japanese woman for whom Everest is the seventh and last of the world’s great summits to conquer.

As painstaking as Hall is, several factors conspire against him: the delays caused by too many people attempting the ascent; his sentimental weakness when it comes to blue-collar striver Hansen, and most especially the fluke, mammoth storm that arrives faster than anyone anticipated. Once the generally likeable characters are buffeted by an indifferent Mother Nature, Everest transforms into a gripping, tense spectacle of desperation, death, and miraculous survival for a few.

Kormákur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino (The Da Vinci Code) shot partly in the real-life location of Nepal, then moved on to the Italian Alps and soundstages in Rome’s Cinecittà and U.K.’s Pinewood Studios; whatever the locale, the climbing and peril scenes look authentic and grueling. The IMAX 3D presentations create a particularly vivid and vertiginous impact, and the sound design by Glenn Freemantle is sensational.

Along with the very sympathetic Clarke and Hawkes, a major cast standout is Emily Watson as base camp manager Helen Wilton; as the tragedy accelerates, the anguish she registers is searing. The screenwriters also take pains to include the women back home: Keira Knightley, very empathetic as Hall’s pregnant wife, Jan, and Robin Wright as Weathers’ no-nonsense spouse, Peach.

With a horrific fate awaiting so many of its real-life characters, Everest isn’t exactly an entertaining night at the movies. But the people onscreen are achingly relatable, even if you’d never dream of taking the kinds of risks they do. The classic dramatic elements of pity and fear are in full throttle in this awe-inspiring recreation of a doomed ascent.

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