Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Naoko Mori, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Kelly, Robin Wright
MPAA Rating: (for intense peril and disturbing images)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 9/18/15 (limited); 9/25/15 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 17, 2015
"I've got to ask this," the journalist addresses a group of climbers resting at base camp after a day of preparing to scale Mount Everest; "Why?" In unison, the climbers offer the usual answer: "Because it's there!" The first try at a real answer, from a climber who has climbed six of Everest's seven peaks and says she might as well climb the seventh, isn't "really an answer." Another suggests that having the ability and opportunity to climb the tallest mountain—to see the beauty of the view from the summit—but not do it would be criminal. That's not really an answer, either, but it certainly satisfies the adventurous bunch.
Later, one of the men on the climb tells a fellow mountaineer that he held back from answering. In his day-to-day life, he says he walks with a dark cloud—like a form of depression—over his head. When he's climbing, the cloud isn't there. Mountain climbing, at least to him, isn't a hobby or an adventure to embark upon because he can. He does it because he needs to do so.
That gets to the heart of it, we suppose. It's difficult to believe that a person would risk life and limb because the person wants to do something so reckless. A need, on the other hand, is something we can comprehend.
All of the climbers in Everest share that compulsion, and the film takes the time to portray that unity of purpose among them. Even though they come from around the globe and are part of competing expeditions, each and every one of them understands why they are here, even if they aren't able or willing to put that reason into words that would satisfy those who can't understand.
That unity extends further, though, especially once a massive storm hits the mountain, and each and every one of them knows that, if not for chance, the person in peril could have been himself or herself. That means they want to go out of their way and are willing to put themselves in danger to help. Some will feel guilty that they simply aren't able to, and others feel the same compulsion when it comes to helping their fellow climbers as it does to climbing the mountain. They need to help, even when it's pointless to do so.
The film starts conventionally. It gives us a history lesson, explaining how the first successful climb in 1952 eventually led to competing commercial climbing ventures in the 1990s, and then it gives us a geography lesson as Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the first to begin a company offering guides to climbers looking to scale Everest, and his team make their way across Nepal, with titles providing locales and the elevation of those places.
Once they reach base camp, though, their work isn't even nearly ready to begin. There's a 40-day training period for the team, in which the less-experienced climbers must prepare their minds and bodies for the trek.
One of the more ingenious moves in William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy's screenplay is how it establishes the threats. They aren't what we might expect, either. There's little talk of avalanches or faulty equipment or the treacherous drops. Almost all of the discussion focuses on the health effects of reaching the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner, and they are all, predictably, horrifying. Hypothermia can make a person feel hot enough to strip off his or her clothes in freezing temperatures. A condition known as high-altitude cerebral edema causes swelling of the brain, and then there's the pulmonary form of edema, in which blood and other fluids collect in the lungs, essentially drowning the afflicted person.
It's all setup for the extended climax, which takes up almost half of the film. The climbers, having reached the summit (or as close as they're able to get), must return. That's when the storm hits.
On the mountain, there are the mountaineers: Clarke's Hall, Josh Brolin as the man with the dark cloud following him, John Hawkes as a man on his last climb, Jake Gyllenhaal as one of the gung-ho owner of a competing guide company, Naoko Mori as the woman who wants to climb all seven summits, Michael Kelly as the journalist, and others of somewhat less significance. Back at base camp, there are Emily Watson as the camp's manager, Sam Worthington as a guide taking people up the "kiddie slope," and Elizabeth Debicki as the doctor who provides the grisly health details and some pragmatic advice (When two climbers are trapped atop the treacherous Hillary Step, she suggests that only one needs to come down). Back at home are Keira Knightley as Hall's pregnant wife and Robyn Wright as the wife of Brolin's character.
The performances here are effective because the actors are playing ordinary people trapped in an extraordinary scenario (The film is based on a true story). There's no attempt to turn them into heroes, although we are rarely surprised when they act heroically. That's on account of the screenwriters and director Baltasar Kormákur's concentration on the shared bond between these people. The actors are focused on matters of deteriorating health, the helplessness of knowing there is nothing to be done, and the emotional toll of trying to stay strong while talking to a loved one trapped on that mountain—hoping they'll continue moving but knowing that such hope is useless.
It's harrowing because it is so plainly hopeless. The mountain, which is portrayed through a convincing blend of shots on location and within sets, isn't the antagonist of Everest. That role belongs to the human body and its inability to handle what the mountain has to offer.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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