Mount Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory famously answered "Because it's there." The world's tallest point, Everest has long been a source of the impossible, of reaching up to the heavens and doing something humans simply aren't meant to do. In doing so though, climbers take an incredible risk that often results in death. Nowhere is that shown better than the recently released 2015's Everest.
It is 1996 and Mount Everest remains a climber's dream. Things have changed though as expert climbers now guide expeditions up the famous mountain -- the tallest point on planet Earth -- for hefty sums that hopefully get those climbers up to the top where they become one of the few to accomplish the feat. Among those expedition and guide leaders are Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who have different outlooks on what they do but are both expert climbers. In a crowded climbing season in '96 as many other expeditions go for the summit, both Rob and Scott lead their own teams up. Weeks of preparation and acclimatization ready the teams for a go at the top -- almost 30,000 feet up, the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner -- but no one can know what awaits them on Everest's slopes. There's only a small window to even make a go at the summit, and the window is closing fast.
From director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns), 'Everest' is based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster that claimed five lives (as far as this story is concerned). Obviously, don't read that link if you don't want MASSIVE SPOILERS. The story itself gained notoriety when author Jon Krakauer -- who was part of the expedition -- wrote Into Thin Air, a bestselling book documenting the disaster. It was even quickly turned into an ABC TV movie. This retelling though? Wow. What a moving, uncomfortable and incredibly difficult movie to watch. Trailers and commercials portray this film as more of an adventure story, of spectacle, but it is far-more emotional and personal than I thought. All this is a compliment by the way. It isn't exactly tearing up the box office, but an easy movie to recommend.
Where 'Everest' succeeds best is in its on-mountain portrayal. Much of the first hour is spent establishing the hellish environment the climbers and guides will be attempting to climb. Even base camp is at 17,000-plus feet. By the time you reach anywhere near the summit, you're in what is called 'the Death Zone.' Your body isn't meant to survive in those situations and is literally dying. Kormakur's film gives a window into this terrifying world where ice crevasses and avalanches, frigid temperatures and impending death await around every corner. Even the experts struggle to do it, much less the climbers they're trying to help. The 1996 season for years was the most deadly as the mountain claimed double-digit lives, and you see why. To say you climbed Mount Everest is an incredible accomplishment, but it is far from a given that you will make it to the top.
So that cast...yeah, pretty decent. Jason Clarke is on the cusp of big things, and this is another part that shows off his impressive talent. He's likable, believable and delivers a very real, very human performance as a mount climber who knows the danger but also the glory of making it to the top and finds himself weighing that knowledge in a life-and-death situation. He has some great scenes with his wife (Keira Knightley, excellent as usual) that really help humanize him and give the Rob Hall portrayal another level. Another excellent performance comes from Gyllenhaal (one of my favorite actors) as Fischer, a free-spirit who thinks only legit climbers should see Everest's summit. Hall and Fischer are competitors but still good friends who make a business decision as the final go at the top of the mountain nears. Two excellent performances.
That's not enough though because...well, it just isn't. The main focus on the climbers is Josh Brolin's Beck Weathers, a 40-something Texan with a wife (Robin Wright) and two kids at home, John Hawkes' Doug Hansen, a mailman who's neared the summit twice but come up short both times, Naoko Mori as Yasuko, a climber who's reached six of the seven tallest summits in the world, and Michael Kelly as Krakauer, the journalist writing a story. For the rest of the guide teams, look for Sam Worthington (why is he not in more, better movies?!?), Emily Watson, Martin Henderson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson and Thomas M. Wright. Some good performances, especially Brolin and Hawkes and Worthington, among the bunch to round out an impressively assembled cast.
Two things worth mentioning that come as a surprise and make the movie difficult to watch. As I mentioned, previews, commercials and trailers portrayed 'Everest' as far more of a spectacle flick and adventure story because at its heart, it is. It's human beings doing the impossible and attempting to climb Mount Everest. So looking at it solely in that vein, it is a haunting, beautiful movie where Mount Everest becomes an incredible, eye-popping visual character. The long, intimidating and foreboding shots of the mountain in the distance or from far below are a sight to behold. Aided by composer Dario Marianelli's score, the snow-capped, windy, rocky set-up establishing shots are an easy success and a treat to watch. Then you see a speck of a human being traversing up the mountain and it all puts into perspective how difficult climbing the world's tallest summit really is.
The counter is the depths of emotions that get thrown at the viewer. Quasi-SPOILER alert, but the climb doesn't go anywhere near as planned and several lives are lost. Some of the deaths are quick and shocking as we see the Death Zone tear the climbers up as the frigid temperatures and lack of oxygen wreak havoc. The other deaths are slow and drawn out -- with some surprises along the way -- that produce some truly heartbreaking scenes. Surprisingly emotional with a haunting final shot. Not an easy movie to "like," but a very pleasant surprise and a big success on just about every level, regardless of how its doing at the box office. I definitely recommend NOT reading about the 1996 expedition before going to see this one. Go in with a clean slate.
Everest (2015): *** 1/2 /****