They did it and then some of them died — slowly, painfully, avoidably — is the main takeaway from Everest, the latest dramatization of the legendarily fateful 1996 climbing accident on Earth’s highest mountain. Like The Perfect Storm, it’s a technically magnificent, frighteningly immersive and solidly acted drama about what happens when the many irresistible forces of commerce meet the immovable object of Mother Nature.
In short, nothing good.
Where Storm followed hardscrabble coastal fishermen who died trying to scrape together a fistful of dollars, Everest concerns what is, on its face, a more economically disposable pursuit — dropping high-five figures to scale a Himalayan mountain. Why? “Because it’s there,” shouts a motley crew of madmen and women either unaware of, or spooked to consider, how much “there” the mountain would throw at them.
On May 10, 1996, several dozen climbers bottlenecked below the south-face summit of Mt. Everest — five miles above sea level. The fixed ropes with which they were to ascend the Hillary Step, a 39-foot rock wall just before the top, were missing. Forced to wait an hour as guides installed the ropes, most climbers blew a 2 p.m. deadline to take the top with enough time to safely descend to the nearest camp. Others ignored severe medical issues. All were blasted by a freakish blizzard. Eight of them (including three north-face Indian climbers whom this film doesn’t feature) died. A tidbit withheld: 1996 wound up being a statistically safe year on a mountain that claims a quarter of the souls who try to conquer it.
Too many people, a lack of cumulative experience, not enough precautions, lifelong legacies that couldn’t be left behind no matter how dangerous. It’s fruitless to pin down one mistake that spiraled into tragedy, although it didn’t keep outdoors journalist Jon Krakauer from speculating in Into Thin Air, his first-hand, career-making account. (Although not based on Krakauer’s book, Everest features Krakauer as a character, imbued with the right blend of observational tics and eventual empathy by excellent character actor Michael Kelly.)
Besides, Everest isn’t out to engage every individual account of the why. It’s an unrelenting, unsentimental portrayal of the what and — via a passel of Oscar-nominated actors and actresses — just enough of the who to ground the film’s inherently ghoulish appeal of realistic disaster and death. (After a one-week IMAX 3D engagement starting tonight, Everest opens in wide release Sept. 25.)
To that end, Everest delivers on your pre-built expectations with little room for surprise. It’s neither traditionally exciting nor troublesomely exploitative, as it probably should be, and it delivers precisely what you anticipate with unsparing intensity. A hard cut to the calm of one climber’s bedroom back home necessitates your ears to regain equilibrium from the aural bombardment. If sound designers had For Your Consideration clips to play during the Academy Awards, Everest would trump them all. And save the sensation of a soundstage wall at the summit, cinematographer Salvatore Totino and the visual effects team’s vertiginous visuals believably thrust you into every last crag of hell and suffering.
Grueling obstacles here bypass injury straight into a sort of Cronenberg on Ice body-horror show, as climbers’ bodies transfigure into ice, skin wears into obsidian nubs and frost fixes to flesh like meat to a grill. It’s as medically graphic as PG-13 allows, and if you’ve heard a more sickeningly realistic suite of bodily injury sound effects, please don’t share it. I’d rather not watch that movie.
While the spectacle is superb, you also get more than misery business from this murderer’s row of performers, if not quite as much as you’d like.
Jason Clarke and Jake Gyllenhaal portray Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, two expert guides jockeying for a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace. Both had scaled Everest before — Hall, a New Zealander, more than any other non-Sherpa climber — and Fischer, an American, finished a month-long ascent on K2 using just one arm after tearing a rotator cuff. Working closer to his native Australian accent than in his last dozen movies, Clarke convincingly captures the anxiety of a businessman balancing excellent customer service and rigorous safety measures in extremis. Here more for star power in a supporting role, Gyllenhaal nevertheless suggests more than a bit of bravado beyond Fischer’s comparative cool-brah composure.
Although some climbers brought more money than experience, Everest doesn’t equate that with recklessness. In fact, none of the climbers who perished were weekend warriors. Among the commercial clients, Josh Brolin and John Hawkes get the meatiest roles, respectively, as rich Texan doctor Beck Weathers and three-job journeyman Doug Hansen — an odd couple at opposite ends of the spectrums for economic health and climbing knowledge. Hawkes is sturdy, but can do this hangdog stuff in his sleep, while Brolin mines unexpected dimensions from a character who could’ve been brash, broad caricature.
Emily Watson plays Hall’s base camp coordinator, Helen Wilton, who struggles to balance the protection of human life with the preservation of their business. (“What will Jon Krakauer write about this?,” she ponders aloud, and not unreasonably, as the bad breaks stack up.) In smaller roles, Keira Knightley and Robin Wright do all they can to elevate their roles above the crying and/or persevering wives. Sam Worthington (Avatar) also turns up as a cohort of Hall, but the hasty manner in which he arrives at the Everest base camp after climbing a different, adjacent mountain seems like another way to cram in a famous face.
For all the talk of existential ennui and economic security among this cast of characters, the motivations of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur ultimately ring clearest: He’s shifting his Hollywood aspirations from the grime-crime of Tony Scott (Contraband and 2 Guns) to the marriage of grandeur and intimacy preferred by Tony’s brother, Ridley, in Black Hawk Down, White Squall or Gladiator (which also boasted “Everest” co-writer William Nicholson in its credits).
This is a persuasive first shot, albeit with some growing pains. Kormákur hasn’t quite mastered clarity amid the chaos regarding where everyone is in relation to each other as conditions deteriorate. But he subtly evokes the pain of helplessness felt by those on safer ground by shrewdly framing their surroundings. Seeing the base camp stuffed with brightly packaged products of convenience and comfort — all rendered utterly useless in the wake of the tragedy — hits like 70-mph ice to the face. Without ladling it on, he also embraces the subtext of how climbing as a commercial enterprise can curdle culture (Sherpas viewed as fat cats’ beasts of burden rather than equal climbing partners) and common sense (is the customer still always right even when he’s endangering dozens of people?).
Too hard, too soft. Too fast, too slow. Too green, too good. Mother Nature and her mountains don’t give a damn. You want mountain-climbing ecstasy? Watch Meru, a fine documentary about a different expedition. Harsh, humbling, haunting and, yes, exhausting, Everest is all about the agony on either side of the tragedy and skillfully so.