Watching Everest, director Baltasar Kormákur’s all-star throwback disaster movie, I was reminded of something simple I’d forgotten about myself; I hate heights. I’m terrible at them. That dizzying sense of imminent danger, combined with the occasionally fleeting sensation that I might irrationally hurl myself down, down to oblivion. Because of this I tend to keep away from any such peril. Still, I surprised myself that I’d put this fear from my mind. Everest changed all that. I clung to the armrests more than during any recent horror film I could mention.
I was also reminded how incredibly unfit I am. Watching these actors portray real life men and women, punishing their bodies in pursuit of this one, fleeting, intangible goal – to stand atop the world’s highest mountain – I found myself constantly wincing. I’ve had recurring problems with my knees. And every stumble, slip or heavy footfall on those steep slopes had me gritting my teeth. When one of them slumped his way down part of the Hillary Step I nearly chewed my hand off.
Props, then, to Kormákur for constructing this true life story in such a way as to have me absorbed in the physical punishment it depicts. Everest, as mentioned near the top there, feels like something of a throwback to the better disaster movies of the 70s; grounded in reality, pelted with a-little-but-not-too-much melodrama, and broadly aware that a little characterisation goes a long way.
It’s 1996, and climbing Everest has changed. What was once the province of the rare and exceptional has become the aspirational extreme holiday of choice for those rich and foolhardy enough to afford it. Meet Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). An enthusiast for mountaineering who has pioneered the commercialisation of scaling Everest with his company Adventure Consultants. Others have quickly followed him into the game, including his primary rival; the laid back Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). ’96 finds Base Camp more crowded than ever, with a record number of climbers preparing to take on one of the world’s most punishing endurance tests. Rob and Scott must work together to ensure it all goes safely and to very important timescales. You don’t want the inexperienced bottle-necking on one of the most perilous mountains in the world.
So we’re introduced to some of these top dollar clients; including over-confident Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin in very comfortable territory) and, as counterpoint, ageing postman Doug Hansen (the dependable John Hawkes); a man aware that this is his last chance, and armed with an inspiring reason to attempt the unthinkable. The cast is overstuffed with stellar names, including a brace of great female actors in key supporting roles (the likes of Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Keira Knightly). This is truly an ensemble piece. Gyllenhaal, for instance – ordinarily the banner name of any movie he’s in nowadays – is relatively sidelined. He’s also great as ever, giving a much looser performance than we’ve seen of late.
Up the mountain they go. And the film beds this in for a good hour. And it’s always interesting. I’m no expert, but I bought pretty much everything I was shown here. Kormákur’s film feels like the real deal. The higher they get, the more impressive his camera’s ability to veer over vertiginous drops becomes. Frequently I was left wondering how this shot or that shot was set up. I’m sure there’s a good deal of CG in this movie, but it’s the masterly kind that doesn’t announce itself.
Second hour sees some unforeseen delays hinder the expedition as a nasty storm front braces the mountain. Disaster inevitably strikes. And while this is all very tense, it’s curiously unsuspenseful. On more than one occasion a significant character is whisked away to immediate death. Now, there’s something admirable about not milking these real life tragedies for maximum emotional blackmail, but at the same time it feels slightly as though Everest, having set itself up as a disaster movie, is suddenly afraid to play by the rules. It becomes a document of what happened. A reconstruction. With all the sudden cruelties that that entails. That’s an entirely valid thing for it to be. But it skews the movie away from the expectations that apply to blockbuster fare like this. It becomes… workmanlike. Assured, definitely, but strangely muted.
There are, however, many things worth praising. The cast are pretty excellent all round. Clarke needed a win after Terminator Genisys (or however the fuck it’s spelled), and he definitely makes his mark on this picture. Similarly, Brolin makes a potentially irritating character easy to spend time with, sprinkling a darker psychological complexity on what could’ve been rather one-note. And while some may complain that in this bloated roster the women get little to do, they make a marked impact on the picture; their presence felt whether they’re on or off screen. They may be small roles, but they’re important ones. Everest would be very clinical without them.
A solidly good picture, then, if not an out-and-out great one. It may seem inexplicable for some to understand why these people put themselves in this incredibly difficult position, and if there’s any wry subtext at work here then it’s perhaps a dig at a culture with commercialises dangerous acts like extreme mountaineering, re-branding life-threatening experiences as something attainable to the average Joe. Everest doesn’t glamorise this lethal past time. It presents the hardships it has to offer with a furrowed brow. The end result is engaging, but not wholly entertaining. The photos of the real people lost in this self-made tragedy at this film’s finale suggests there’s no reason it should be.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Cliffhanger.