Everest is a sobering character story packed with bravery, horror, and humility - as well as thrilling tension.
Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is a renowned mountain climber and entrepreneur - founding Adventure Consultants to lead outdoor sport enthusiasts through the world's most dangerous terrains. Even though Hall and his team lead expeditions around the globe, Adventure Consultants is best known for success in guiding clients along the treacherous journey to the summit of Mount Everest. Hall's positive reputation (and profits) inspired other enterprising climbing guides to follow in his footsteps - resulting in an increasing number of adventure seekers attempting Everest climbs each year.
However, in the summer of 1996, the rising commercialization of guided climbs on Everest leads to congestion on the mountain. Waylaid by harsh weather conditions, a handful of inexperienced climbers, and fleeting moments of human error, Hall and the Adventure Consultants clientele, including Outdoor magazine journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), renowned Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), Lone Star State doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), and postal worker-turned-adventurer Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) become trapped near the mountain's summit. With no chance of aerial rescue, the climbers must dig-in and knuckle down for a life or death fight against mother nature.
Based on true events of the "1996 Everest Disaster," along with accounts from surviving members of the team and climbing experts, Baltasar Kormákur's (2 Guns) Everest biopic attempts to turn tragedy into enthralling character drama. It's a tricky line, especially given that experts have conflicting opinions about how the disaster could have been avoided and who, exactly, is to blame; yet, Kormákur and screenwriters William Nicholson (Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (Hunger Games: Catching Fire) are able to provide a relatively balanced, and thrilling, account of the tragic May 10th expedition - with insight into how and why climbers even attempt to summit Everest (even though nearly one-in-four will perish in their endeavor).
Beyond the practical challenges of filming a movie about death on Mount Everest, Kormákur is careful to portray Hall, his Adventures Consultants colleagues, competitors, and their clientele in shades of grey - making sure that no one person comes out looking like an outright villain (or, more directly, the person most deserving of blame for the event). Instead of furthering a particular account, or turn speculation into fact, Kormákur explores the various reasons these real-life characters journey to Everest - as well as how each person met (and were shaped or broken by) the harsh realities of mortality on the mountain.
To that end, Kormákur revels in the men and women of the 1996 Everest Disaster for the first two-thirds of the film, only to lose a bit of narrative traction when Hall's expedition slips into full-on disaster mode. The first act succeeds in establishing the setting, and teaching the climbers (as well as the audience) rules for ascending the mountain, but Kormákur's film shines in the second act - setting the stage, and onscreen tension, through subtle unpacking of the people in Hall's expedition. For the most part, the filmmaker carries his principle subjects through a full narrative arc (whether they live or die) but, by the end, Everest is moving so fast, it's difficult to fully understand each choice the team or an individual is making - and, subsequently, how the viewer is supposed to feel about each person after the fact.
To an extent, that frenzied perspective adds to the Everest viewing experience (immersing moviegoers in the chaos, fear, and oxygen-deprived decision making that were all present on the mountain back in 1996); yet, ticket buyers who view biopics to be informed, and gain a better understanding of events, may find Kormákur's final act to be a somewhat unbalanced (albeit extremely emotional and gripping) ride.
Beautiful cinematography from Salvatore Totino (Frost/Nixon) lays a sophisticated visual foundation for Hall's 1996 Everest expedition as a hopeful tale of self-discovery - presenting the titular mountain as an inspirational, though always grueling, opportunity for personal growth. A character as much as any of the film's human protagonists, the filmmakers maintain a cautious reverence for the mountain (and the lives lost throughout the years) that, in less skilled hands, could have come across as a brainless man versus nature action-drama. Instead, Everest is really a story about human frailty (both emotional and physical) - and how people use the millennia-old mountain as a way to test personal limitations.
To that end, Kormákur assembles an A-list ensemble for his Everest tale. Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, and Keira Knightley (playing Hall's pregnant wife, Jan Arnold) each provide graceful depictions - ensuring that none of the characters are shoe-horned into stock biopic tropes or responsibilities to the movie plot. Singling either of the four performers out for extra praise would be a disservice to the others. Frankly, each one offers a heartfelt turn that imbues their real-life counterparts (deceased or living) with humanity during their time onscreen.
Additionally, brief but powerful performances from supporting players Emily Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, and Michael Kelly all give subtle pushes or weighted quiet, backing the movie's main cast, in several especially sensitive moments. (As indicated, the filmmakers behind Everest are careful not to assign blame or frame any one person as a stock cliche.) Presenting the Adventure Consultants team as they were, fallible humans in a hostile environment (rather than heroes or villains) ensures that Kormákur's larger exploration of man-versus-self is all the more relatable - and enduring.
Everest is playing in both 3D as well as IMAX 3D and there's no question that Kormákur takes advantage of the premium formats. That said, moviegoers looking for "noticeable" 3D will find that the director favors subtle depth-of-field instead of pop-out gimmicks. Still, thanks to the mountain's vertigo-inducing height, there are plenty of memorable shots and tense scenes that are made even more immersive with a bigger screen, robust sound, and 3D visuals.
In an industry that is already packed with triumphant tales of men and women surviving nature along with over-the-top CGI natural disasters, Everest is a sobering character story packed with bravery, horror, and humility - as well as thrilling tension. At times, Kormákur struggles to balance the titular mountain, the living, and the dead in Everest's final act but, even when the film falls short of paying-off individual characters or ideas, it still delivers a thought-provoking viewing experience - not to mention insight as well as honor to the men and women who have lost their lives testing their vitality against Earth's deadliest climb for nearly a century.
Everest runs 121 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense peril and disturbing images. Now playing in 2D, 3D, IMAX 3D theaters.
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