Film Review: Everest (M, UK/USA/ICELAND, 2015)

There are some movies that you need to see on a big screen, that their scale can’t be contained or properly appreciated on a small screen or even on your own home theatre system. Everest is one of those films because it can take your breath away with how visually stunning it is. But the slow laborious pace of the film and the fact that you know this is ultimately a tragedy ends up resulting in a bit of a buzzkill to all the wondrous beauty.

Based on survivor Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” book and also Lou Kasischke’s book “After The Wind” as well as taking some inspiration from the 1998 documentary short film also titled ”Everest”. This film directed by Icelandic Baltasar Kormakur (2 Guns, Contraband) takes us on that fateful 1996 climbing expedition where 8 people lost their lives. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and leader of the Adventure Consultants team takes a group of climbers to attempt to summit the mountain. Among them, brash Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) who failed his previous summit attempt and is determined for another crack, journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) is there to document the expedition, and fellow guides Andy ‘Harold’ Harrison (Martin Henderson) and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington) to name a few. Competing mountaineer and expedition leader for Mountain Madness team Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) his fellow guide Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigordsson), base camp manager and ‘den mother’ Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and Hall’s pregnant stuck back at home in New Zealand wife Jan (Keira Knightley) round out the rest of the large ensemble.

Jason Clarke is exceptionally cast as Robert Hall, a source of reasonable calm and common sense considering he scales Everest repeatedly for a living. For a bunch of the actors who are supposed to be playing New Zealanders, the only one who gets the accent right is Emily Watson and Martin Henderson because he is Kiwi. Clarke isn’t too bad though he sounded almost Australian at times, Sam Worthington barely even tried and Natalie Portman’s was abysmal. To be honest I don’t know why they didn’t just cast a New Zealander in Portman’s place since her role wasn’t that vital other than to be the emotional plot-point for Hall and spends all of her time clinging to a phone and talking to him remotely. The whitewash of this film doesn’t just come from the snow either, the fact that only a handful of the Sherpa characters are given dialogue or screen time also feels a little unfair.

The film is sluggish for the first half, as it attempts to both establish the build-up and introduce us to its ensemble cast; who are difficult to keep track of particularly when they’re covered head to toe in puffy snow gear. It’s hard to get emotionally attached to any of them as there is minimal character development. The exceptions being Hall and Beck, Hall is the most warming and ultimately the most tragic with his death resulting in him having never met his daughter, whilst Beck is given a second chance to return to his family. But what’s most interesting and least explored is the motivations for why any of these people do it. There’s an all too brief moment in the film where the question is asked “Why?” and the responses seem to just be “because we can”. The surprise comes from the brash Beck who reveals that he suffers depression so it’s only when he’s on the side of a mountain that he feels at peace. It would’ve been far more interesting to spend even just a few minutes longer analysing the reasons why these people risk their lives just to get to the top of that mountain. Hindsight and knowing the outcome makes Hansen’s stubbornness to get to the summit and in turn risking his and Hall’s life seem reckless. Logic and common sense and our natural instinct to survive would tell us to turn around, but Hall was determined to get his friend to the summit, sadly it cost them both their lives.

One of the factors attributed to the tragedy was the delay in getting to the top during the allotted window of good weather due to the sheer number of people all wanting to summit on the same day and time. A shot where Hall picks up some rubbish left on the ground at Base Camp and he looks over the sea of tents and all the people is all we get of a commentary on the notion of the over-commercialisation and tourism factor of Everest. But what’s even more heart-wrenching is seeing the bodies of those left behind. I feel like the screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy could’ve been a bit tighter, particularly in the first act, as it felt like all the drama, action and tension was crammed into the last 20 minutes of the film.

But as briefly touched on earlier, what this film does manage to do is take your breath away. Seamlessly blending the actual footage of Everest with some green screen digital and some studio shots with the cinematography helmed by Salvatore Totino (The DaVinci Code). Thanks to the magic of Hollywood they’ve transformed some of the shots of Val Senales Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy into the rugged terrain of Nepal. But there are plenty of shots of the actual Base Camp in Nepal to make us feel like we’re on the ground there. We only saw this in VMAX 3D with Dolby Atmos but I’d highly recommend checking this out in IMAX 3D if possible because it’s a wonder to behold. The long panning shots of the mountain, or the terrifying roar of the storm that rolls in, hearing and seeing that is just phenomenal and it really brings it to life and makes the mountain itself feel like a character, not just a location. You jarringly notice the deathly silence as they cut from the shots on the mountain to the shots of Jan at home. And the helicopter rescue sequence almost feels like being on an actual rollercoaster. Seeing all that snow and ice and sleet just makes you feel cold. Most of us will be happy enough to be armchair tourists thanks to this film.

Everest suffers a little in that it tries too hard to build up to the disaster only to not give enough credence or respect to the event itself by making it feel rushed in the final act. It also feels burdened with too many characters and not enough insight into them and possibly would’ve been better served focusing on just a couple of key individuals. That being said it’s still visually and aurally sensational and worth watching for that escapism alone.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 121 minutes

Everest will screen in Australian cinemas from 17 September 2015 through Universal Pictures Australia