“Everest” succeeds in giving filmgoers a reason to never hike again. Man versus nature movies aren’t in short supply, but director Baltasar Kormákur’s film manages to convey both the beauty and the peril of conquering the world’s highest peak. Paired with great performances by its leads, “Everest” succeeds as a thrilling tale in which adventure takes a horribly wrong turn.
The story, based on the tragic 1996 Everest disaster, follows father-to-be Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leads commercial expeditions to Everest’s summit. He agrees to take on several new clients excited to make it to the top, including Texas family man Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin). Though the group manages to reach their destination while combating frigid temperatures and altitude sickness, they find themselves stranded when an enormous storm barrels over the ridge. The group then struggles to return to the base camp, ultimately becoming permanently buried in the snow.
Kormákur presents his version of Mount Everest as an intimidating, colossal structure. He tirelessly recreates the winding path that leads up the mountain. Filled with treacherous climbs and bottomless crevices, every section the characters interact with is dangerous and unpredictable. Their reactions to the dense snow and frostbite-inducing situations feel incredibly realistic. Although the film makes sure not to overlook the tragic aspect of the story, there is a strong essence of an old-school adventure film. The death-defying heights, as well as blocks of ice plummeting down on the climbers, make for jaw-dropping spectacles. One sequence, that involves Brolin’s character hanging suspended from a ladder placed across a miles-deep crevice, is particularly harrowing.
Kormákur takes cues from other historical disaster films such as “Apollo 11” and shifts the focus between the climbers trapped on the mountains and the people at base camp trying to get them to safety. This approach heightens the tension and emotion both sides experience as they attempt to reconvene. It also helps the movie’s pacing, as no one side of the story gets more focus than the other. The only drawback is that while disaster films typically have a relatively small cast of characters, “Everest” has several characters in its storyline. This makes it difficult to get attached to every climber, leaving some of them less developed and less interesting than others.
Clarke excellently portrays the adventurous Hall and conveys the guide’s struggle to remain a responsible, respected leader while trying to survive. Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays competing summit guide Scott Fischer, radiates energy as the younger, hipper mountain expert who dares to take more chances than Hall. Brolin, whose character starts out as little more than a stereotype with a Texan drawl, isn’t thoroughly developed. Other characters feel wasted, even with the film’s star-studded cast. Robin Wright gets only a handful of moments as Beck’s wife. Keira Knightley has a few decent emotional moments as Hall’s pregnant spouse, but she’s relatively sidelined.
While not the greatest expedition film to grace the screen, “Everest” manages to turn a tragedy into an exciting story without feeling exploitative. Recreating the gigantic mountain is no easy feat, but Kormákur manages to turn it into a deadly winter wonderland. Taking horrific true events and spinning it into an intense survivor story, Kormákur’s “Everest” will certainly give those afraid of heights reason to cling to their seats.
Running Time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Score: 4/5 stars