‘Everest’ is tense, simply told survival
“Everest” is a pleasant surprise. The survival story about climbers trapped on the tallest mountain on Earth is based on a true story. Perhaps the most famous recounting is Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” In 1996, climbers of Mt. Everest became trapped on its peak in a white-out blizzard. Many died, many lived, and many in both categories made tremendous sacrifices for others. Essentially, this is a humans versus nature story writ large.
Thankfully, they thought to tell such a harrowing tale in an uncomplicated manner. Especially after last week’s “Black Mass,” it’s refreshing to see something that isn’t so overly stylized. The best decision made in “Everest” is spending considerable time establishing its characters and following their trek to the summit. The disaster portion of things doesn’t kick off until halfway through the film, when they’re coming back down. By then, the audience has been taught something of the procedure and the topography of Everest.
This means that the details can start holding intensity. Understanding how a delay, a simple miscommunication, or a valve freezing up can kill holds more tension in it than an outsized action scene. That the film keeps its risks so close to reality also means the audience can’t trust the Hollywood solutions we’ve seen a thousand times before. There are no deus ex machinas here, no action heroes swooping in at the last second. There are only simple realities and consequences.
Where disaster films typically cast their central leads with recognizable actors and throw unknowns into the supporting roles, “Everest” takes a different tack. You might recognize its leads, especially Jason Clarke as expedition guide Rob Hall, but the supporting players include Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, and Sam Worthington. It’s the unknowns who are asked to inhabit the central roles, freeing these better known actors to fill out smaller roles with more precision. It’s an intriguing approach, and one way to get more name actors into your film.
Of particular note are Gyllenhaal and Knightley. Gyllenhaal is a joy as the relatively carefree, occasionally hard-drinking expedition guide Scott. Knightley is asked to literally phone in her role, as Rob’s worried, pregnant wife at home in New Zealand. Few actors could do it better; she delivers the most touching performance in the film.
There are some concessions between reality and cinema here. Certain stories are focused on over others. The work of the sherpas is never highlighted past base camp. Characters often “de-mask” at altitude in order to speak with each other. Look at pictures taken on Everest and this isn’t out of the ordinary, but you don’t need to take your snow goggles off to speak with someone. You do so that the audience can tell one bundled, bearded man from the next. (Even then, you can get a little lost among them from time to time.)
There is a great veneration in this film for the climbers lost. “Everest” doesn’t seem like a cash grab about a true story. The climbers and Everest itself are both respected and the story can be deeply felt at times.
“Everest” is about what you expect. Yet in a genre that so often trips over itself to deliver ridiculous sights and sounds, a movie that understands the majesty, awe, and power that nature presents on its own without embellishment is rare. Perhaps that makes “Everest” more special than it ought to be.
It might be a better film because so many of its ilk would pump up the storm to tornado levels, or insert desperate stunt rescues on the sides of ice-cliffs, and have its characters sprinting at 29,000 feet in front of explosions. Instead, “Everest” understands one climber making a simple sacrifice for another holds power. Crawling a few feet can display more bravery and humanity than a flat-out race. One bad decision that an audience understands can hold more consequence than a slow-motion action sequence. This is what makes “Everest” unique in its genre. For many viewers, that will make it more valuable a theater experience than an effects-laden disaster film. For other viewers, that will make it less valuable. Chances are, you know which camp you fall into.
Three stars out of four. As an old-fashioned, patiently told, and uncomplicated survival movie, “Everest” is one of the better efforts of recent years. It won’t knock your socks off, but it will satisfy and stay with you a few days afterward.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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