If the real Mount Everest, both in 1996 and today, is plagued by overcrowding, so, perhaps inevitably, is Baltasar Kormákur’s “Everest”, based on the real life climb in May of 1996 that wrought so much tragedy. Rob Hall’s (Jason Clarke) commercial outfit, Adventure Consultants, designed to get amateur hikers to the summit of Mount Everest for a hefty fee has been copied by other mountaineering entrepreneurs, like Scott Fischer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal almost as if he belongs more on a Pacific beach than in the wilds between Nepal and Tibet, coming and going from “Everest’s” overstuffed narrative at his leisure. There are other groups too, and they are all on Everest to reach the top at roughly the same time, and they all get in one another’s way, which leads to to a logjam of characters (though don’t expect the heavy-lifting Sherpas to get much play; I mean, it’s only 2015!).
If you’ve read Jon Krakauer’s controversial best-seller chronicling the event, “Into Thin Air”, you will have a laid a base to keep all these people straight; if you haven’t, god speed. Kormákur tries alleviating this problem by casting a plethora of well-known faces in prominent roles so that you can simply pick them out on account of their off screen famousness. A few actors even manage to overcome their underwritten parts to find occasional flares of honest to goodness characterization. John Hawkes plays Doug Hansen, a divorcee working three jobs to fund his trip, and though he gets a speech about making the climb to inspire school kids, Hawkes’ sad-eyed demeanor hints less at inspiration than some kind of hole he can’t fill, a regret the film itself never seeks to explore. The part of Beck Weathers, meanwhile, could have been cliché – “one hundred percent Texan” – but Josh Brolin cuts through the broad exterior to evince a hubris that is inevitably smacked down.
If “Everest” has a true main character it is Rob Hall, portrayed with warmth by Clarke as a professional who seems somewhat overwhelmed by Everest as a tourist trap and quietly concerned so many competing expeditions will yield grave consequences. But the film as a whole never quite commits to the notion of itself as a cautionary tale. There are references to the perilousness of this undertaking as well as to the snarl of climbers that contributed directly to the loss of too much life, but Kormákur is decidedly reluctant to truly point fingers. And so it pogoes back and forth between being a mournful dirge and a triumph of the human spirit, one filmed in 3D IMAX. Its stunts are robust, of course, and its cinematography is striking, no doubt, and it’s often quite exciting, but it never really adopts a viewpoint. Unless, that is, you want to believe the real point-of-view in “Everest” is, well, Everest.
“He might as well be on the moon.” This is what Jan Hall (a gallant Keira Knightley, forced to phone in – literally – her entire performance ) says of her spouse, Rob, when she learns he’s stranded near the summit with no way down, penned in by a storm. If the line has a faint whiff of cheese it’s no less apt. At 29,029 feet, Chomolungma (and it’s really time we co-opting English speakers change Everest’s name back to Chomolungma, Denali style) might be on Earth, but its peak, settled in a death zone, where you’re dying even as you’re climbing, is basically as treacherous a journey as those manned flights to Earth’s satellite. And when the film invokes this faraway sensation, it soars.
An immaculate shot of a hiker line in the wee hours of dawn, their way lit by helmet lamps, makes them momentarily appear like anyone from any era, no different than mortal souls of George Leigh Mallory’s time. “The mountain makes its own weather,” we are told. In other words, it’s alive, it’s calling the shots, and if all these people trying to scale its towering heights seem insignificant, it’s because The Goddess Mother of Mountains reduces them all to specks in its shadow.