To get an idea of how dangerous Mount Everest is, you need only look at the news. The earthquake that struck Nepal this past April killed twenty-two people at the Mount Everest Base Camp. Among the lives lost were several sherpas working for Adventure Consultants, the very company depicted in Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest. The story this film tells predates that disaster by nearly twenty years, but the scenario ends much the same way. While it’s chock full of gorgeous Himalayan scenery, it falls somewhat short of doing justice to anyone’s individual story.
The year is 1996, and Adventure Consultants guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) brings his latest team of clients to Nepal for a hike to the summit of Mount Everest. Everyone, of course, brings along their own baggage. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) is an adrenaline junkie more at home on a mountain than with his family; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) is a struggling mailman hoping to inspire schoolkids with his climb; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) hopes to finish her quest of climbing the Seven Summits; Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) is a journalist tagging along to profile Rob and his company. Tensions arise at Base Camp as Rob discovers another team intends to climb Everest on the same day.
Everest establishes its cast of characters right up front, but takes its time unfolding an actual conflict. Man vs. Nature is obviously the big one at work here, but there’s also the matter of professional competition. Once Rob and his team reach Base Camp, they meet rival group leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose cavalier attitude doesn’t click with Rob’s workmanlike schedule. In a buddy cop movie, these two would make a perfect team. Here, they just sort of shake hands and agree to disagree in the name of safety. Gyllenhaal’s presence is actually kind of weird, because even though he’s portraying an actual human being (with his own Wikipedia page and everything), he acts like some average bro who just wandered onto the set one day. That’s the beauty of his performance, though. He makes more of an impression sunbathing on the side of a frozen mountain and acting like he doesn’t give a shit than Josh Brolin does willfully ignoring his family.
Nevertheless, these characters don’t have long to establish themselves. Once they’re up on the mountain and staring the Death Zone in the face, the only way to tell anyone apart is by the color of their jackets. Rob, Doug and Scott fare the easiest, since not only are they the main characters, but that distinction earns them primary colors. Everyone else is stuck with random shades of blue, red trimmed with black, orange trimmed with blue… You know what? It’s kind of sad that I can remember more about what colors these folks wore than what they were like as characters. And these were real, actual people, many of whom died climbing Mount Everest.
One of the unspoken themes running through Everest is that commercial mountaineering may be one huge scam. We see Rob and his team (including Emily Watson and Sam Worthington, stuck inside a tent for the entire film) methodically plotting their route, accounting for everyone’s health, and making efficient work of their climb. They’re clearly professionals. The other team, though, treats Everest like a beast waiting to be conquered. They toss aside oxygen tanks like trash (a problem legitimately being addressed) and sneer at Rob’s goody-two-shoes boy scout routine, even in the face of probable death. These guys are your stereotypically horrible tourists, and even though he’s their guide, Scott seems that much better for keeping his distance from them.
Before their climb, all the hikers visit a monastery to pray with the monks and receive a token scarf. The film ushers us into and out of these encounters so quickly that it makes it all feel like part of Rob’s schedule. Does the monastery provide these scarves for every hiker? Do they make them on-site? If not, who’s their retailer? Granted, those questions aren’t particularly relevant to Everest’s story, but maybe they’re questions worth asking. How far does the commercialization of this kind of enterprise go?
From a visual perspective, Everest is a gorgeous film. It’s presented in IMAX 3D in many theaters, and the sensory experience alone is worth the price of admission. The dizzying heights, coupled with some nicely-executed 3D, add a visceral thrill to the final act, in which a freak storm hits the mountain and forces the climbers to fight for their lives. The only downside to seeing the film in IMAX is that it makes the occasional use of soundstages that much more obvious. A helicopter shot of Everest followed by a shot of Jason Clarke pounding on what’s very clearly a mountain-shaped piece of stucco covered in starch flakes kills the vibe in a hurry.
Everest’s visual wonders are satisfying enough that it’s easy to overlook the paper-thin characterization, but saying that feels disrespectful given the way this story ends. Still, creating fully-formed characters instead of stock types would have given the film some kind of lasting impact rather than the thrill-ride-of-the-week that found its way to theaters.
Liked This? Share It!