Editor’s Notes: Everest opens in limited IMAX release today, September 18th and expands wide next week. For an additional perspective on the film read Everest: Has the Star Power, Nuanced Artistic Direction, and the Story.
When a character in Everest, Baltasar Kormákur’s (2 Guns, The Deep, Contraband, 101 Reykjavík) dramatized account of the 1996 disaster that left eight climbers dead, portentously proclaims, “The mountain always has the last word,” to a group of eager climbers, we know some, if not all, of the climbers gathered for a downer of a pep talk, are doomed to lose their lives on Everest, the tallest mountain the world (29,029 feet), and for many, perhaps too many over the last two decades, the only rationale necessary to justify the expense and risk of summiting Everest (i.e., the few, the proud, etc.). Knowing in advance, however, that some climbers will perish (while certainly allowed, glancing at the Wikipedia entry isn’t necessarily encouraged) does little, however, to diminish Everest’s unique combination of 3D/IMAX-enhanced spectacle and deeply felt, if unevenly earned, emotional resonance.
Everest shifts completely into disaster mode, with all of the tropes, spectacle (expertly directed by Kormákur), and yes, clichés.
The signs and portents of inevitable doom find their way into the first, full scene, an airport goodbye between Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a New Zealand-born mountaineer and co-founder of Adventure Consultants, one of the first (if not the first) trekking companies to offer a full-service package culminating in summiting Everest for a sum, $65,000, only the wealthy could afford, and his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold (Keira Knightly). They’re tense, anxious expressions and forced pleasantries say everything about the personal risks Hall takes every time he returns to Nepal for one more trek, but they’re not enough to convince him to stay behind with his wife. No longer alone in offering treks to Everest’s summit, Hall’s company faces serious competition, including Mountain Madness, a trekking company run by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), an American extreme sports enthusiast, but additional risks – apart from the weather and oxygen-deprived altitude – lie with the other trekking companies who also promise to bring their clients to the top of Everest at roughly the same time, creating a logjam that later contributes to the disaster that befalls the climbers on May 10th and 11th.
Before a combination of factors, including Hall’s promise to his clients, specifically one client, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), to facilitate summiting Everest, even past the “safe” turnaround time, 2:00 p.m., unfixed ropes, insufficient oxygen, and an unexpected snowstorm, contribute to the disaster, Everest eases the audience into the ins and outs of trekking and climbing, offering handy lessons in acclimatization (the better part of a month), the so-called “death zone,” the equivalent of a 747’s cruising altitude where the human body begins to break down, resulting in minor and major problems, including disorientation and slowed-down reflexes, and introducing the characters in broad, general strokes. Besides Hall and Fischer, we meet Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a wealthy Texas physician who refuses to take “no” for an answer, the already mentioned Hansen, writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), whose book detailing the disaster, “Into Thin Air,” became a bestseller.
Lives are lost and mourned, other lives are saved, sometimes miraculously, while nature, symbolized by Everest, impersonal, implacable, and immovable, remains unchanged, eternal.
Not surprisingly, Everest relegates the female characters to support roles, sometimes literally (e.g., base chief or commander, medic/doctor, wives), but with one exception, the only woman attempting to summit Everest, Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori). She’s climbed six of the seven summits (the highest mountains on the seven continents), leaving only Everest to check off her list of mountaineering accomplishments. Given the language barrier, however, Cooper and his screenwriters give her only handful of lines throughout the film. Everest doesn’t flesh out Hall’s base commander, Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), either, but her relationship with Hall, friend and business partner, helps to anchor Everest emotionally. Arnold mostly frets and worries (and cries), while Beck’s wife, Peach (Robin Wright), offers a contrast and counterweight, using her connections and presumably their collective wealth to aid Beck’s return.
Everest gives the narrative and character arc (such as it is) to Hall, the principled professional, driven by a fatal sense of obligation and loyalty to his clients, leaving the other, underwritten, underdeveloped characters – and with them, the actors playing them – to make do with a character detail or two (if that) until the attempt to summit Everest begins to go inexorably, inevitably awry for Hall and Fischer’s clients. When it does, Everest shifts completely into disaster mode, with all of the tropes, spectacle (expertly directed by Kormákur), and yes, clichés, that the phrase “disaster mode” implies. Lives are lost and mourned, other lives are saved, sometimes miraculously, while nature, symbolized by Everest, impersonal, implacable, and immovable, remains unchanged, eternal.
Everest’s is a unique combination of 3D/IMAX-enhanced spectacle and deeply felt, if unevenly earned, emotional resonance.