“Because it’s there” is famously a good enough reason to climb Everest, and it’s probably also as much justification as was needed to greenlight an expensive and starry 3D/IMAX 3D film about Everest, too. After all, who doesn’t thrill to vertiginous helicopter shots of icy slopes, who doesn’t love queasy 3D sequences where we swoop over and under spindly ladder bridges, who doesn’t appreciate the spectacle value of a roiling storm that blots out the blue sky with the force and speed of a megaton bomb? The mountain summons such imagery immediately and has a hold on the collective imagination, just by being there, that makes the whole project feel like a no-brainer. And on those visceral levels, Baltasar Kormákur‘s “Everest” certainly delivers. But as a functional adventure-cum-disaster flick it works hard not to let the grandeur of its setting become obscured by anything as extraneous as plot or human connection: “Everest” boasts drama so high it’s Himalayan, but the characterization is thinner than the air up there.
The film, written by Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours“) and William Nicholson (“Unbroken“), opens with a series of titles explaining the significance of its lead character, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) — the man who pioneered the idea of bringing expeditions to the summit as a job, essentially making Everest into a business. Other companies and individuals followed Hall’s lead, including Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal), who ran a rival concern, so by 1996, when the film takes place, the lower slopes of Everest were getting quite crowded — and not everyone had the integrity and nous that the pragmatic, cautious Hall did. At least part of the subtext here (sadly unexplored like many other interesting avenues) is that the commercialization of Everest makes these ascents less heroism than tourism, so the decision to retell the true story of one such expedition that ended in tragedy comes somewhat pre-loaded with compromised stakes.
In an extended series of getting-to-know-you scenes we’re introduced to Hall’s crew this time out, including ornery Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), meek but driven mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), attempting to be the first woman to scale all seven of the world’s highest summits, and Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist who’s going to cover the climb for Outside Magazine. Not all of these people are going to make it home, or even back to base camp, which is held down (sometimes literally — it’s a bunch of tents) by Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and a new doctor (Elizabeth Debicki), while Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington) acts as lookout and weather spotter on a nearby, lower slope. The women back home are repped by Hall’s pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), and Weathers’ harried missus, Peach (Robin Wright). And while it’s kind of depressing that they are so backgrounded, the fraught conversations they have with their spouses do provide some of the film’s more emotionally effective, if utterly manipulative, moments. Plus Knightley and Watson both get to gargle thick Kiwi accents, so there’s that.
The group, after weeks of training and acclimating, finally attempt the summit and many of them make it. But on the way back down a devastating storm hits, which, coupled with some confusingly unexplained business about half-empty oxygen tanks, spells increasingly grisly doom for more than one of them, as the film morphs from adventure story into surprisingly downbeat disaster flick, complete with a ’70s-style stacked cast. In fact, it’s here that you realize just why the disaster films of that decade, which “Everest” does resemble, always packed their ensembles so heavily with recognizable faces: when the human drama is so undernourished, having name-stars helps suggest a background for characters who have none. And in fairness, here some of the actors shine despite having very little to work with: Clarke is completely convincing as Hall, Hawkes is effortlessly empathetic as the expedition’s ordinary Joe, Gyllenhaal gives Fisher a surf’s-up, stoner vibe that oddly works (and gamely goes bare-chested in an early scene, so don’t fear you’re going to be denied some Gyllenhaal flesh just because we’re up an icy mountain) and Kelly is remarkably effective, despite little actual screentime, as the journalist on whose book the film is partially based.
Frustratingly though, the lines of friendship and rivalry and what-actually-happened-to-the-oxygen-tanks get irrevocably tangled, not really helped by the fundamental difficulty in telling one North Face-clad dude in goggles with snow in his beard from another. Add to that some puzzling decisions, like having Worthington, nothing if not a physical, actiony actor, stuck in a tent emoting rather than climbing. Or giving the hinted-at rivalry between the sherpas almost as little attention as that given to Yasuko, the sole female climber who has probably the most compelling story overall and yet gets maybe one line of dialogue. And that’s not even mentioning the slightly groan-worthy hints that the actual heroes of the day are the IMAX team who are separately attempting the climb (it’s the format the film is designed for) — this is essentially a film that loses its footing every time it looks away from the majesty of its location. So it’s probably all for the best that it doesn’t really do that too often.
“The last word always belongs to the mountain” says Anatoli (Ingvar Sigurdsson) at one point as the men variously pontificate (without any actual conclusion) on their Moby Dick-like desire to conquer the world’s highest peak. And what is true for Everest is also true for “Everest”: Salvatore Totino‘s crisp 3D photography and Kormakur’s way with a clear, fluid, thrilling action sequence show off the mountain in immensely impressive ways. But the humans involved get short shrift, making an end coda reminding us that these were real people feel awkward and unearned. The moral of the story is of course that in the battle of puny man vs the grandeur of nature, nature will always win. It’s just a shame that “Everest,” its human drama swamped by spectacle, embodies that truism quite so literally. [B-]