In 1996, journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly, "Law Abiding Citizen") intensified the rivalry between Everest tour groups when he chose the known safety of Adventure Consultants' Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") over his initial choice, the maverick Mountain Madness's Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal, "Nightcrawler"). This is only one of the conjectured contributing factors for why eight climbers lost their lives in May of that year attempting to summit "Everest."
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur ("2 Guns") tackles the technically challenging goal of of putting his audience on the world's highest mountain with two ill-fated climbing groups and most will wonder why anyone would put themselves through this ordeal - 'because it's there' just doesn't cut it. Shooting at 16K feet on Everest's base camps plus the Italian Alps' Senales Glacier with wind chills up to 30 below Centigrade (cinematographer Salvatore Totino, "The Da Vinci Code"), the cast valiantly recreates the experience of high altitude perils and suffering. Yet the screenplay, by two writers who've tackled people facing horrors before (William Nicholson, "Unbroken," and Simon Beaufoy, "127 Hours"), lacks narrative and spatial cohesion, lessening the overall impact. It is telling that the film's whitest knuckle scene involves a helicopter rescue from base camp rather than anything that happens during the climb itself.
The story primarily follows Hall, taking leave of his pregnant wife and fellow climber Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley) and gathering his group. They include Doug Hansen (John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone," "The Sessions"), a mailman given a discount to make his second attempt, Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brollin), whose wife Peach (Robin Wright) is against the idea and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman hoping to become the oldest woman to summit as well as completing the '7 Peaks.' After landing in Nepal and being blessed at a monastery, the group settles in for two months of acclimatization and training with Hall, base camp manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and doctor Caroline MacKenzie (Elizabeth Debicki, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") who provide background on the various problems the group may face foretelling many fates.
The group is to make four climbs ahead of the actual summit attempt, which Hall has scheduled for his 'good luck' date of May 10. During one of these preliminary runs, while Beck is making a scary crossing on an aluminum ladder with slack rope guides, an outcropping of snow suddenly drops, causing the man to lose his footing. Hall gets him across, but it is clear Beck's nerves have been severely rattled.
There are thirty-four climbers spread over three groups, all planning on making their ascent on the same day, something Hall, the most diplomatic of the guides, tries and fails to spread out. There are conflicting viewpoints about oxygen use, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Sigurosson, "Jar City") vehemently against it, although an agreement is made to stash oxygen tanks for use during the descent. Fisher, introduced sunbathing at base camp, believes Hall's too much of a hand-holder, believing only climbers who can make their own way should even try, although he forges an ambiguous agreement with Hall to team up. On the day of the ascent, conditions look perfect.
The first problem encountered is that fixed ropes have not been attached, costing the climbers an hour of precious time, as all climbers must turn back by 2 p.m. Meanwhile Beck, suffering from snow blindness, has to stop, assuring Hall he will wait for them on their way back. Hansen is clearly struggling. Fisher, who'd helped another climber get back to base camp, returns and summits, seriously compromising his strength. As those who've made it to the top, including a triumphant Yasuko, begin to make their way down, time has already begun to run out, yet Hall agrees to help the desperate Hansen continue on his way up. The two summit after 4 p.m., just as a violent and unexpected storm can be seen on the horizon.
If Kormákur's goal was to replicate the chaos of that day, he's succeeded, as we lose track of who is where on the mountain and just who belongs to which group. We do know that Hall and Hansen stop at the top of the Hilary Step. Hansen is lost as is a rescuer who reaches Hall, the man whose good luck keeps him alive overnight only to have a second storm make further rescue attempts impossible. Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington, "Avatar") pops up to radio Hall, tracking his group from who knows where via binocular. Those oxygen tanks? The ones that are found are empty.
The film has been converted to 3D, the format surprisingly adding little (Beck's ladder mishap excepted), and is being shown on IMAX screens, but much of the film is shot in close up, concentrating on the climbers rather than their environs. Even scenes from the summit lack landscape drama, but Kormákur ensures we can suffer vicariously with those on the mountain, frostbite, exhaustion and altitude madness all strongly felt. Clarke is very good as the kindly Hall whose compassion may have cost him his life, but considering the sizable cast, few others stand out. Hawke is a meek Everyman. Brolin, whose character's book was one of the screenwriter's sources, is a stereotypical Texan who learns early on that his priorities are skewed. Watson is left to wring her hands, Knightley to have a heartbreaking phone call. Only Wright springs into action, pulling off a miraculous rescue from afar with a telephone campaign.
"Everest" impresses more with its technical achievements than its storytelling.
Robin did not see this film.
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