Having dabbled in entry-level rock climbing in my preprofessional life, I’m fascinated by movies exploring the subject. I was nowhere near proficient: just hiking up Colorado’s 14,000-foot Mount Elbert was an unforgettably grueling experience. Needless to say, I have great admiration for those who face the savage physical test that is Mount Everest.
Such a feat, however, carries with it extreme risks to life and limb.
“Everest” depicts the 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of several climbers. Equipment shortages, adverse weather conditions, and psychological fragmentation propelled their descent into hypoxic hell – a descent rendered in gut-wrenching vividness onscreen.
The movie centers on experienced climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a five-time Everest veteran and the founder of the “Everest tourism” industry. In the several years since Hall has been running his Adventure Consultants company, other companies have emerged with similar ambitions, including “Mountain Madness,” run by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s tragically underutilized here). The problem: a congested mountain and exponentially increased dangers. Accordingly, “Everest” works as something of a “Jurassic Park”-style tragedy: attempts to commercialize something wild and untamable go horribly awry when nature bites back.
“Everest” benefits greatly from its genuinely riveting cinematography, with a camera that swoops and dives into the crevices of the Himalayan landscape. This advantage is accentuated by the film’s outstanding sense of spatial awareness – it’s always clear exactly which mountaineering incidents are happening where. And even for those familiar with the general contours of the narrative, “Everest” is a white-knuckle story charged with massive amounts of adrenaline. Director Baltasar Kormákur resists the temptation to deliver an “inspired by true events” story that embraces typical Hollywood tropes: “Everest” hews very close to reality in all its sadness and horror.
My one quibble with “Everest” is that the film’s stellar cast isn’t used more heavily. It’s a fine ensemble (Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, and Sam Worthington, just to name a few), but many are relegated to little more than extended cameo appearances. Kormákur delivers a product that’s deftly plot-centric; the unfortunate corollary is that there’s a bit of a sterility to some of the tragic deaths.
For outdoorsy types or fans of the “man against wilderness” genre, “Everest” is an absolute must-see. Though at times difficult to watch, it’s an exceedingly well-done movie that grips the viewer mercilessly. At the end of the day, there’s a part of me that will still admit to harboring a slight secret interest in climbing Everest as a bucket-list item…but perhaps that goal ought to remain un-pursued.
A relentlessly intense “high adventure” drama. Recommended.