“Never let go,” pleads the tagline for “Everest,” a bracing depiction of an ill-fated 1996 expedition to climb the Himalayan mountain. While that likely refers to the risky exploits depicted onscreen, it could just as well serve as a mantra for woozy audiences enduring their own traumas through Baltasar Kormákur’s nausea-inspiring adventure.
Equal parts spectacle and harrowing survival tale, “Everest” also serves as a kind of bid for the survival of the ever-imperiled moviegoing experience, with the 3D IMAX-enhanced thrills masterfully engineered to bring its mountain-climbing fears to horrific light.
Released in the same window of time as the documentary “Meru,” another depiction of climbers struggling through the vertical Himalayan landscape, “Everest” may not be the foremost realistic portrait of such a high stakes undertaking. However, Kormákur — aided by an unnerving and largely unsentimental screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy — has undeniably magnified the visceral qualities of the trepidatious climb to great effect.
Until now, the Icelandic-born director’s shift from eccentric character studies (“101 Reyjavik,” “Jar City”) to studio projects suggested his interests had shifted to slick but disposable genre fare (“Contraband,” “2 Guns”). “Everest” is a far more ambitious attempt to fuse Hollywood wizardry with a genuine sense of dread. In the pantheon of recent brainy blockbusters, it lacks the same constant surprises of last year’s “Gravity” or the visual poetry of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but Kormákur’s movie nonetheless marks the rare fusion of effective craftsmanship with focused storytelling.
Much of the movie’s grim atmosphere stems from the source material: In 1996, eight climbers died in the midst of a grueling unexpected storm that swept through the mountain with unyielding force. From that starting point, Kormákur builds an engrossing depiction of the mountain’s unsympathetic terrain. The drama centers on a pair of competing tour groups, one led by the stoic New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and the other by Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal, grinning beneath a frosty beard). As an opening title card and ensuing conversations make clear, the success of Hall and other foreign groups yielded a boom in commercial tours littered with amateur climbers plunking down thousands of dollars for the opportunity to reach the world’s highest peak.
Among their clients: Cocky Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin, on autopilot but a natural fit), an eager and pompous adventurer intent on getting his money’s worth, and mailman Doug Hansen (an underutilized John Hawkes), intent on conquering the summit he failed a year earlier. In an early briefing session, the men are warned that once reaching the top of the mountain, “you start to die.” But such freakish trivia only increases their eagerness.
Until the sky grows dark and the wind picks up, it’s hard to blame them: Seamlessly blending green screen technology with sweeping mountain views, “Everest” brings the ferocious climate to life in engrossing detail. That scale is a natural fit for hulking proportions of the IMAX screen.
At times, in fact, Kormákur seems almost too enamored of the extraordinary vistas to spend much time with his characters. “Everest” constantly flits between terse expedition and the visual splendor of the snowy terrain. However, those elements are mostly complimentary as tension builds. A perfunctory scene at the start of the movie, when Hall leaves behind his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) as he jets off for his dangerous mission, winds up setting the stage for an emotionally draining third act. Similarly, the obnoxious attitude of Texan climber Weathers suggests a discardable side character, when in fact his unlikely resilience figures heavily in the hectic finale.
Despite its behemoth scale, “Everest” strains to juggle its massive ensemble. Most of the other climbers land hardly more than a line or two of dialogue. While Gyllenhaal gradually fades into a minor role, Robin Wright — as the stern wife of Brolin’s character — barely lands more than a few minutes of screen time (though she makes them count).
But the actors that do find opportunities to capture the sheer anxiety of their situation make them count. As the trenchant base camp operator, Emily Watson conveys the helpless nature of the group’s situation with her mounting looks of frustration as the clouds rush in and her walkie talkie can only do so much. Oscillating between expansive outdoor scenery and expressive closeups, “Everest” maintains a clear-eyed cinematic depiction of dread.
That tone has its limits, reaching overwhelming proportions as the body count rises and rescue missions go awry, but the movie remains an audiovisual marvel. The whooshing and crumbling effects go a long way toward enhancing the ongoing suspense unique to the setting, where fleeting lightheadedness or the loose rungs of a latter can mean sudden death (some of the tilting camerawork means viewers should be wary of dizzy spells). Eventually, the story finds its way to a tear-jerker finish enacted with sufficient restraint.
With so many lethal factors in play, it’s ironic that “Everest” features just one fleeting after hours scene where several mountaineers discuss their rationales for seeking the summit. During the brief moment of unsubtle banter, “Everest” shows its commercial boundaries — it couldn’t simply get away with letting the ambiguity of the climbers’ motives dangle there like those ominous clouds circling the peaks. But that’s exactly where it goes with the haunting images that comprise the movie’s inspired conclusion.
While it pays homage to the sacred dimensions of the mountain, “Everest” falls short of acknowledging its locals, relegating the sherpas on the voyage to anonymous background figures. Beyond a brief early scene set at a Tibetan temple, the movie shows little regard for the native culture. But that in itself taps into its traumatic aspects of the narrative, imbuing it with shades of a horror movie where reckless kids venture into the woods and never return. In “Everest,” the kids are backpack-clad thrill-seekers giddy with excitement about conquering the world, until they get buried by it.
“Everest” opens the Venice Film Festal today. It opens nationwide September 18.