As I sat riveted in my seat by the sight of a dozen odd adventure junkies struggling to survive the punishing climb and the potentially fatal weather conditions on their way to the peak in Everest, one question came back to me repeatedly: Why would anyone put themselves through this?
Helmed by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, Everest tells the true story of a 1996 climbing expedition that left eight people dead. Expectedly then, an air of doom hangs over the film, as seasoned mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads a team of tourists to the world’s highest peak at 29,000 feet. Familiar faces include Josh Brolin as a rich Texan, and John Hawkes as an unassuming postman whose last attempt at conquering the summit was unsuccessful. There’s also Jake Gyllenhaal as a rival group leader and extreme-sports enthusiast, who agrees to work with Hall, pooling in resources and manpower to avoid over-crowding on the mountain.
The film’s flabby first-half introduces us to the large ensemble of characters, and yet you realize you don’t really know anyone, apart from a basic trait or two. To be fair though, one isn’t expecting character depth and human drama from a film that’s shot in the IMAX format, and Everest relies heavily on awe, special effects and 3D.
At the cost of sounding insensitive, the film hits its stride in the second hour when our protagonists, having reached the peak, find it hard to make their way down as a brutal storm sweeps in. More than once you’ll find yourself clutching your armrest as climbers teeter dangerously close to the edge of the mountain, or when the camera swoops threateningly over bottomless drops. Bundled up tightly in parkas, their bearded faces covered in ice and snow, it’s often hard to tell the characters apart in the film’s harrowing final act.
The women in the film are relegated to supporting roles, yet Keira Knightley and Robin Wright bring emotional depth as anxious wives waiting for their husbands to return home, and Emily Watson is nicely cast as the group’s coordinator standing by the radio at base-camp. In between the scenes of chilling tragedy, Kormakur cuts routinely to the wives as if asking us never to forget how many lives were irreparably affected by these events.
In the end though, while Everest is testing brutal and spectacular in portions, there’s never enough tension to keep you consistently invested in the drama. The thrills too are fewer than you’d expect from what’s essentially a disaster film, and we never get one compelling central character to root for.
Still, I’m going with three out of five for Everest. It works despite its problems and that may just be because of the magnificence of the beast.