The allure of Mother Nature is not for the faint of heart or body. And even for those who aren't, the swallows of the earth will threaten to overwhelm the simple, tiny little man who tries and sometimes succeeds, but rarely, to conquer it. The new mountain climbing drama Everest details the painstaking process of what it takes the ascend the heights of one of Earth's most overwhelming natural forces and the doom it caused to eight climbers in the tragedy of 1996, previously described in books, documentaries and a TV movie.
Now comes the Hollywood version, and surprisingly, it's not what you would think. The ads for the film sell it as an action-packed thrill ride best seen in IMAX 3D, but what it turns out to be instead is a docudrama of the events of the '96 expeditions, a sober and straighforward re-telling of the story as it happened. A big ensemble is used to assemble the key characters but none are focused on in particular, aside from Rob Hall, played by Jason Clarke, who turned the business of climbing Everest into, well, a business, with his company called Adventure Consultants. His business model was to act as a guide for amateur climbers who wanted to make it to the top of Everest, and deal with all the challenges that brought with it. Soon, other businesses sprang forth (one called Mountain Madness is led by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film) and all began competing against each other for the glory and riches and danger of bringing people up the mountain. The film shows us the process of getting ready for the summit, the base camps, the equipment, the practice runs you must endure, the damage the climate and the heights can do to your body, and how only during a certain window of time due to ever varying weather conditions can you even attempt the summit itself.
For those unfamiliar with this process, as I was, the detail that goes into transporting you to the mountain visually is spectacular. Director Balthasar Kormakur employs a "you are there" feel to the climb, and not for one second did I ever disbelieve these people were really on Everest and the mountains surrounding it. At the top of the mountain you feel the altitude along with the climbers and not a single green screen shot is ever visible to the audience, although filming was done in a studio in London, along with occasional mountain location shots surrounding Everest. The feeling of being there during a storm and as the climbers systemically begin to lose their oxygen, is enough to recommend the film for the breathtaking effect it all has, even if emotional impact is rendered fairly mute by the lack of focus on any particular character. Josh Brolin brings the most personality to the group as a swaggering Texas republican, and Jason Clarke is the most sympathetic as the hand-holding paternal guide to his clients who he refuses to leave behind even in fatal situations.
But even though Kormakur is to be admired for bringing the appropriate amount of gravity to this measured account of the tragic events, and never goes for the exploitative action shot at any moment (you really do feel that this is what realistically happened to these ill-fated climbers), the effect is to keep you at a distance from the actual people. The characters are thinly sketched and the most emotional moment comes from the dramatization of the real life final phone calls between Rob Hall and his pregnant wife (played by Keira Knightley) as he lay dying on the mountain. And you can't help but feel that by telling the story in a realistic manner it may rob the audience of feeling the satisfaction and excitement from the conventional action movie payoffs they're meant to expect. This is a downer story with a downer ending, and though it may be respectful of the real life persons involved, it certainly doesn't leave you pumped from the thrill of it all as you leave the theater. But still, the wondrous visuals stay with you. When all is said and done, the mountain itself is the center of the film, and it's left standing to welcome any who dare scale its heights and live to tell the tale. That I wouldn't recommend.
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