With a summit at approximately the cruising altitude of a 747 and some of the harshest conditions known to man, reaching the apex of Mount Everest symbolizes a feat of man overcoming the most daunting forces of nature. Nearly 30 years after the first attempt to summit the mountain, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to successfully summit the mountain, and though it is possible that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine reached the peak in 1924, they never made it down. In the ‘90s, a handful of companies started to offer guided expeditions to reach the peak of Everest. One of these companies, Adventure Consultants, was started by the New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall. In 1996, disaster struck one of Hall’s expeditions and would become immortalized in the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, who was a member of the tragic expedition. Now that story has been adapted into the film Everest, the astounding new film from director Baltasar Kormákur. Everest is an all-around impressive feat of filmmaking, one that carries a deft balance in the immense spectacle and resounding human drama.
Everest opens with Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) getting ready for his latest trek to the summit of the massive mountain. Leaving behind his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley), Rob is accompanied by his trusted co-workers Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), who manages basecamp, and fellow climbers Andy Harris (Martin Henderson), Michael Groom (Thomas Wright), and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington). Upon their arrival in Nepal, Hall and the rest of his Adventure Consultants meet up with their clients – Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a brash Texan; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman with one last chance to reach the summit; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman who has reached the top on six of seven of the world’s peaks; and Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist there to document the commercialization of Everest. But Adventure Consultants aren’t the only company guiding expeditions with their competitor Mountain Madness led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and aided by Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Before the ascent, everyone must go through weeks of training and various forms of safety preparations. But once they begin their ascent, nature and the arrogance of man will undermine all their preparations in the most harrowing experience that any of these people will face.
In many regards, Everest feels like a classic disaster movie – an expansive list of characters played by A-list actors and a sense of impending doom. But Everest isn’t cheesy or exploitative like a disaster movie. The script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy does a wonderful job at establishing the characteristics and motivations for all of its characters, never asking the audience to make grand leaps of logic for any of their decisions. Nicholson and Beaufoy also wisely avoid making any of its characters villainous or duplicitous, avoiding any other villain than the sheer hubris in the face of nature. What might be most impressive is the manner with which the two sidelined wives (Knightley and Beck’s wife played by Robin Wright) provide a strong emotional core to the central drama. They’re not in the film simply to provide teary-eyed moments of a wife losing a husband.
The most impressive feat within Everest is the wonderful direction by Baltasar Kormákur. He follows up his last film, the ridiculously entertaining action flick 2 Guns, with a film that has both impressive visuals and serious dramatic weight. Never does he allow the film to do anything but barrel forward, like an avalanche of character and story always hurtling towards the inevitable. Kormákur allows his visuals to strongly reinforce the film’s themes using a massive sense of scale to illustrate man’s insignificance compared to monstrous mountain before them. Shooting certain scenes in IMAX add to this immense sense of scale that Kormákur brings to the film, and the 3D never is gimmicky or overbearing; like the IMAX cinematography, the 3D is used to emphasize the immensity of the challenges inherent in the story.
There’s not an underwhelming element within Everest – the script, cinematography, and acting performances are all top notch. It’s a film that never tries to do more than its story calls for, which is something that seems as if it’s becoming all-too-rare. It doesn’t take long for you to understand the dangers that the characters will experience in their ascent and their reason for climbing the mountain, which the film wisely takes far beyond George Mallory’s quote, “Because it is there.” The narrative efficiency at play in Everest makes the eventual raising of the stakes all the more tense. An all-encompassing feat of filmmaking, Everest is a film with edge-of-your-seat suspense and a robust emotional heart.