If there’s a satisfying middle ground between conventional filmmaking and a thrilling cinematic experience, then it would seem Baltasar Kormákur has found it on Everest. Or in Everest, actually, since the director’s latest movie bluntly shares its title with the towering Himalayan peak in what amounts to an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, chronicling the ill-fated 1996 climbing expedition that claimed several lives.
Kormákur’s movie ticks all the usual boxes on his handy formulaic docudrama checklist, including showing several screens of text at the beginning of the pic to set up the dangerous history of climbing Everest and then taking sentimental pit stops throughout the adventure, but he does a decent job of justifying these decisions in the moment.
The text at the start succinctly establishes a timeline of events, from original Everest summiters Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay through a treacherous few decades to the birth of expert-led expeditions that saw whole groups summit together. By the mid-90s, there were multiple companies all leading large groups up the mountain at around the same time. It’s a quick blast of a history lesson and it sets up an ironic thesis: that by 1996, climbing Everest was safer and more successful than ever before and then the events depicted in this movie happened.
We then meet the impressive cast of familiar faces representing the mostly male crew of climbers. There’s Rob (Jason Clarke), head of Adventure Consultants, and then amateur enthusiasts Doug (John Hawkes) and Beck (Josh Brolin). Throw in Jake Gyllenhaal as the laidback leader of a different group and Emily Watson as Adventure Consultants’ base camp manager and it’s clear that Kormákur has assembled a special cast. This helps immensely, because while the script plays everything a little too safe and simple, these great actors can fill out their roles with careful nuances.
As we get to know the various characters who are prepping for the big trip, we get to know Everest as well. The movie will probably play best to a novice on this subject, because it’s genuinely interesting to see the different stages of the expedition and how much time and effort is expended before even reaching the mountain’s base. There’s a meeting in Kathmandu and a helicopter flight to a more elevated village and a trek on foot across an ancient-looking suspension bridge.
By the time they and we have arrived at base camp, it already feels like we’ve witnessed quite a journey, albeit in chronologically compacted cinematic space. Kormákur and screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy keep a solid pace as they communicate the experience of preparing to climb the world’s highest peak without simply rattling off a bunch of bullet point statistics. This detailed account lends the picture an air of authenticity and does a fine job of selling the sense of extreme danger, which segues smoothly into the harrowing conditions near the mountain's top.
Once the teams make the final day long trek to what they all hope will be the summit, Kormákur puts his best filmmaking tricks to work. He leans on a very impressive effects team to execute an immersive recreation of Everest's oxygen-depleted heights, an approaching storm, and the beautiful views sporadically visible in the midst of an exhausting climb. There are some very tense and gripping moments as the climbers traverse along a narrow ledge and Kormákur's camera clings to the edge along with the humans, forcing us to feel the precariousness of the situation.
But while the pic remains a good ride until the end, there are downsides to Kormákur's conventional approach that most noticeably take their toll in the third act. Despite how engaging this all seems throughout the various stages of the expedition, the movie ultimately feels like a rather passionless affair. The acting is very good and the characters likeable, but when everything goes to hell and the movie aims to land its emotional punch right in our collective gut, the impact is more of a light breeze than an overwhelming gale. Whether or not that's too many metaphors, the point stands: the picture just isn't all that moving.
Kormákur's straightforward storytelling is slick and involving, but it's too beholden to the rules of basic "based on a true story" cinema to make its heartstring-tugging feel as genuine as its depiction of a digital Everest. There are moments where the tugging is especially strained, such as when Rob or Beck call home to chat with their wives. Part of the problem is that talented actors like Robin Wright and Keira Knightley are stuck in thankless roles that ask nothing more of them than a few minutes of screentime and a worried expression or two. Surely Knightley's career is not so dire that she can't book a better gig than this, but maybe not.
The calls back home also remind us that the movie works far better as an adventure story than a dramatic one. And that realization maps the movie’s trajectory. When it’s simply trying to show us the scary edge-of-your-seat thrills associated with mountaineering, the movie is quite good, but it’s a more leaden product when trying to locate the gooey centre in a story about people staring death in the eyes and then dying anyway.
Everest works best as a look at mountaineering as a sport, something that electrifies certain souls while the rest of us stay at home, possibly because we don’t have $65,000 to shell out for a single vacation. The movie is less successful when trying to make sense of summiting Everest as a way of life and death, reducing marriages to clichéd phone calls and having characters make bad decisions in a situation that preys on them.
Middle ground is found, though, so while Kormákur can’t nail the emotion, he at least keeps the story interesting and relatively compelling. The visuals here are strong and the cast keeps the movie from slipping too perilously into schmaltz, although there’s nothing that Wright or Knightley can do to save their bit roles. On the plus side, Sam Worthington seems more at home in a small supporting role than he ever did as the embattled lead of stuff like Avatar and Clash of the Titans. Maybe there’s hope for him yet. There’s certainly hope for Kormákur, who exhibits some solid skills even if there’s still plenty of room for improvement. It’s no small feat to take us to the top of Everest and let us feel the wind whipping at our faces. If that’s all we feel, then Kormákur has fallen short of his goal, but it’s still better than being numbed.