Everest (2015)

★★★★

Everest PosterDirector: Baltasar Kormákur

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 Airdraw 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.

Everest

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Metropolis (1927)

★★★★★

Metropolis PosterDirector: Fritz Lang

Release Date: March 13th, 1927 (US)

Genre: Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel

Lost for 80 years until its miraculous 2008 rediscovery in an Argentinian museum, Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis astonishes in both its visionary aesthetic and also its societal relevance almost a century after release. The film’s opening montage depicts brassy, metallic equipment chinking away as steam spurts out without prejudice, and it is clear from the off — the machines have taken over. Workers solemnly shuffle in and out of tunnels for their latest totalitarian inspired shift, shoulders hunched, heads drooped. “Deep below the surface lay the workers’ city,” a cue card informs us.

The ‘Club of the Sons’ lies above, hosting libraries and lecture halls and lush gardens. Inhabitants all wear bright, expensive garments that haven’t been dirtied by the plumes of ash below. They scurry around dazzling water fountains seemingly oblivious to burden, their nonchalance heightened by the fact that those doing all the hard graft underneath probably don’t see much in the way of H2O replenishment. Lang is introducing us to a clear class order, where those on the lower end of the scale are compelled to fund their loftier counterparts’ serene lifestyle.

The first literal clash of class occurs shortly thereafter: worn, muddled children seemingly escape into the land of luxury, leaving the socialites frozen in anger. Or perhaps it is fear. All except Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), offspring of the Master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) — the latter resides in the even grander Tower of Babel, one of many religious references laced throughout. The film primarily follows Freder as he goes in search of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young Mother Teresa-esque figure from the workers’ city.

He ventures into a world of capitalist mechanisation where everything is procedural and methodological, and where a single deviation from structure entails disaster; we see men fall, likely tragically, after a large machine providing power to the city above malfunctions. It is here that Freder realises these labourers are essentially slaves to the system, and that his father is complicit in promoting their hardships. “What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” says son despondently to father as the film not-so-subtly anticipates events to come.

From the beginning, it is made apparent that our protagonist considers all humans to be his brothers and sisters. It could come across as forced characterisation, but Gustav Fröhlich subsequently spends two hours justifying his persona’s caring mentality through empathetic expression. Freder’s not the only aristocrat with a conscience; we also have Joh’s trusty-cum-not-so-trusty assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), whose job security anxieties capture in a nutshell the power his boss has over the city.

Joh’s other sidekick — you could say he is the devil to Josaphat’s angel — is known only as The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp): a slender-faced and baggy-eyed detective who is tasked with stalking Freder. He is pre-transformation Nosferatu. There is also Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an Einstein-like inventor who dwells in a Gothic house that looks distinctly out of place amongst the grandeur of Metropolis. At one point Rotwang ambles maniacally towards the camera, his outstretched arms poised to grapple. Werner Herzog would employ a similarly eerie shot in his interpretation of Nosferatu the Vampyre years later in 1979.

Towing frazzled hair and a forlorn gaze, the scientist reckons he can bring back his deceased ex-wife (Joh’s eventual partner and Freder’s mother) in machine form. The film plunders this intersection between life, currency and machinery for all it is worth, decrying the amalgamation of prosperity and power as something that’ll almost certainly lead to immorality. Rotwang claims nobody will be able to tell the difference between man and his Machine-Man creation. But the workers, the people, are already powerless machines.

By design silent films have a far-reaching interpretative wingspan and this can confuse viewers, or at the very least distract us from events actively playing out on screen. That is not the case here — you can translate the film as you please, and the more thematic mining you do the more fascinating it is. Thea von Harbou’s screenplay evolves into a game of pseudo-AI deception, where life’s more positive aspects (such as love) are warped and used against our central protagonist.

Even revolts, which are often stimulated by underdog collectives seeking to rise up against injustice, are inverted through artifice in Metropolis — the workers’ revolt is manufactured without their knowledge by Joh, another instance of the overseer using his influence to puppeteer society. Said uprising unveils some Titanic-esque disaster imagery involving, again, water, and you being to wonder if James Cameron was influenced by the class crisis on display here when writing his record-breaking flick.

The piece’s appearance is something to behold, particularly given it is almost a century old. It is plain to see how other filmmakers were visually galvanised: Ridley Scott and Blade Runner’s neo-noir cityscape; Luc Besson and The Fifth Element’s futuristic allure; George Lucas and Star Wars’ hovercraft network. Utilising miniatures, effects master Eugen Schüfftan created an urban locale resembling New York (director Lang was inspired by the concrete jungle during a visit).

But the smaller details stand out as much as the larger ones — glowing science fiction spirals sit atop desks and hang beneath ceilings, their ascending-descending design mirroring Metropolis’ upper and lower class system. A wonderfully shot elevator scene sees Freder sink with hope gleaming from his eyes as the menacing Thin Man rises, the pair just missing each other. Silent movie performances are about body movements and facial expressions, and this sequence captures that imperative notion perhaps more than any other.

Time has afforded Metropolis even greater substance. Terrifyingly so, given its underlying message — that centralised sovereignty shouldn’t prevail — is still a widely problematic phenomenon at large in various parts of the world today. The movie is a bit long and some might find its war on capitalism too one-sided (Netflix is great after all), but this is pioneering filmmaking.

Metropolis - City

Images credit: IMP Awards, Film 110

Images copyright (©): UFA, Paramount Pictures