Release Date: September 18th, 2015 (UK); September 25th, 2015 (US)
Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson
“One in four died.” That’s the first thing we see on screen, a solitary line in a block of informative dialogue detailing the worrisome history of Everest expeditions. It is our dramatic lever, pulled at the inception just in case we’re not already aware of Mount Everest’s indiscriminate harshness. Throughout, numerous avalanches interrupt our viewing but unlike the false threat exhumed from similar-looking shots in the alpine-set Force Majeure, the danger here is very real.
William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (which may or may not be based on John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air — draw your own conclusions) sheds light and dark on the late-90s mountaineering disaster involving rival trekking companies. Going in bereft of any knowledge probably isn’t much of an advantage; there is a moment at around the forty minute mark that essentially earmarks the film’s ending. It is one of those disaster movie clichés — Titanic’s “You jump, I jump”; any conversation between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon — that acts as a sentimental forewarning.
Admirably, it is the only instance of pure sentimentality in a film more concerned with truth. Everest is cold, at times freezing, but authentic and gripping and no less emotionally involving as a result. Realising the dangers of a crowded field, opposing expedition leaders Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) — the former is excellent, relaying an exhausting and exhaustive performance — opt to team up during a simple scene bound by numerous layers: it shows two experienced climbers anxiously bowing at the mercy of the mountain, but does so in a manner that provides one of the film’s only junctures of light relief.
Fischer asks who will lead when they near the summit, and both men laugh. There is clarity in his words, an assertion that the need to achieve will always usurp the right to survive. Or, if you like, it’s just a rare chance to giggle. Baltasar Kormákur hones in on the competition between colleagues, a smart move that affords these men and women who are otherwise embroiled in an unrelatable escapade a degree of accessibility.
Invoked from the get-go, this competitive edge mirrors a layer of unsettled snow poised to subside at any moment. At the beginning the banter is weightless — it’s there, but the sly digs between Josh Brolin’s Texas-bred Beck Weathers and the aforementioned journalist John Krakauer carry an ominous undercurrent. The film’s atmosphere is driven by poorly disguised trepidation, and you just know something has to give. “There is competition between every person on this mountain,” says the hippie-esque Fischer, and it is palpable. But any interplay between the climbers is superfluous and Fischer acknowledges this shortly thereafter, declaring the mountain will inevitably have the last word.
In a sense Everest is about the pull of an unavoidable thrill. “Why?” asks Krakauer as he documents the climbers’ journey. “Because it’s there,” is the comically-inclined universal reply, but it is also the best reply the mountaineers can muster. Nobody really has a solid answer — postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) talks about his desire to be the everyman who conquered the monster and achieved the impossible. We’re left to ponder whether the reward eclipses the risk, a contemplation that becomes increasingly one-sided the more Hall’s pregnant wife (a game Keira Knightley) appears. Various other members of the group give their reasons: Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) references her need to complete the Seven Summits, having already commandeered the other six.
But each response to Krakauer is admonished with persiflage. It is as if the alpinists know the risk is too great, and they’ve simply given in to the thrill. An unfortunate offshoot of the film’s competition element is a spot about the completion of a celebratory magazine article. Emily Watson, who graciously adds oomph to her fairly thankless role as a glorified receptionist (the actors are very good en masse in generally underfed roles), is stressed about her company receiving a bad review in the midst of the encumbering drama, a whim that feels tonally fake.
Death is an inevitability and when it occurs it is visceral in a non-violent way. Shades of grey don’t exist; the landscape yields either white tundras or black crevasses, and as such when people pass they do so bluntly. Analysing the effectiveness of a death scene in this instance feels egregious and unnecessary, particularly given the victims are real people, but Kormákur does handle said moments with candour and, crucially, without mawkishness. Mass amounts of clothing and equipment make it difficult to differentiate between those on screen, reinforcing the notion that on Everest individuals are merely pawns, merely statistics.
Kormákur’s direction is adroit initially, and it gets better as things get worse. We often see the misty, black peak looming over base camp like a plague. Oxygen masks quickly resemble gas masks. Each second the climbers spend plodding up slopes represents an ounce of life extracted from their bodies. This dangerous aura is complemented by Salvatore Totino’s visual flair — the snow-covered ridges could easily pass for one of The Two Towers’ awe-inspiring New Zealand shots.
Enhanced by booming screening room speakers (Everest is definitely a cinema movie), the sound design frequently jabs at your solar plexus. You instinctively breathe a little more vociferously when things start to go wrong and the outing’s audio power does nothing to ease the tension. There is one tranquil shot that is particularly wonderful; at twilight, camped in the eye of the storm, the camera pans calmly around Hall and co. as they gaze longingly at their lofty goal.
Everest stays true to its subjects in a way that is both compelling and respectful, even if some individuals don’t receive the attention they likely should due to the constraints posed by an excessively large cast. By the end, as the credits paid tribute to many of those involved, I found myself in a morose state of sadness, agitation and admiration. For a ‘big disaster movie’, that’s pretty good going.
Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider
Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures
19 thoughts on “Everest (2015)”
Excellent review mate. I saw Everest last night and you make some very perceptive points, particularly regarding the deaths. I hadn’t actually read or heard any reviews of this before going in but was aware it has received a few average ones here and there, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I was thoroughly gripped throughout and even the 3D was OK (the only convenient times for me were 3D, otherwise I’d have gone for 2D); probably my favourite of all the blockbusters this year to date. Thought Clarke and Watson in particular were very good in what must have been a tough shoot for most involved.
Thanks Stu. I was on a similar boat pre-viewing, and the film pleasantly surprised me too. Good to hear the 3D is sufficient; there are a few moments in the 2D version that look like they’ve been made for 3D. Completely agree with your sentiments regarding Clarke and Watson, they are very good — probably the best on show.
Great review, man! I’m glad to hear this one holds up. Films of these type tend to be all special effects without any consistency!
Cheers Mark. Indeed, I’m especially pleased given this one has such a talented cast — one that deserves nothing but a solid foundation to build from.
Really cannot wait to see Everest man, I don’t know why i haven’t yet actually. Waiting for the right time to see it with family, I suppose. One thing that I am really curious to see — and it may seem odd and/or nitpicky, but only because it was described so wonderfully in Krakeur’s account — is whether the cinematography is conscious of how the atmosphere gradually dissipates the higher you get on the climb. Supposedly when you’re standing at the Hilary Step, which is like, 90% up the mountain, the blue sky starts looking black. There’s not enough oxygen to hold the light. Just. Wow. Incredible, and an incredible mountain. sounds like the movie does a fairly good job of producing the thrills out of a very tragic expedition event. Great job here Adam
A family trip, sounds good! That’s crazy re: the atmosphere. I can’t really remember whether or not the film dealt in that truth.It worked for me though, really tough going but that’s how it should be. I really want to read Krakauer’s book! Thanks Tom.
Krakaeur’s book is absolutely amazing. Really puts you there on the mountain, more so than this film. Just got back and have to say it didn’t really do much for me. I’ll have to sit on it for awhile longer before writing about it, but yeah. Good but not great.
Ah gutted! That’s annoying. D’you think it has anything to do with reading the book beforehand?
I think it did. Krakaeur’s book is a firecracker read. I wished this film was told from his POV.
Gonna buy and read it ASAP.
Watched this a few days ago and found myself getting swept along by the film. You’ve got to give it to the people behind the movie for going the extra mile. Nicely done my friend.
Me too. Could feel myself getting into it more and more as the disaster unfolded. Cheers mate!
I didn\t like this one quite as much. There was no sentimentality, but I also didn’t care whether they lived or died. It fell flat for me.
The lack of sentimentality afforded the people on screen additional realism for me. I bought into it more.
Everest was not on my radar UNTIL Clark and Gyllenhaal’s names came up. I will have to rectify that. Great review!
When Jake G comes calling, you simply cannot ignore! 😉 Thanks Zoë.