“The Mountain Between Us” is one of those movies that’s impossible to watch without imagining the elevator pitch that got the project off the ground (yes, it was adapted from a Charles Martin novel of the same name, but someone still had to sell Hollywood on the idea). “It’s ‘The Grey’ meets ‘The English Patient’!” “It’s ‘Alive’ meets ‘Before Sunrise’!” “It’s ‘Cast Away,’ but if Tom Hanks was a little horny for Wilson!” Amusingly billed as a “romance-disaster” on the film’s Wikipedia page, Hany Abu-Assad’s dreary but diverting high-altitude epic is a “will they or won’t they?” flirtation superimposed onto a classic story of survival. It’s fantastically unrealistic stuff from the first minute to the last (and there are far too many minutes between them), but Idris Elba and Kate Winslet generate enough heat to keep the frostbite at bay, and Mandy Walker’s stunning location cinematography ensures that the film looks considerably more authentic than it feels.
The first sign that “The Mountain Between Us” might be a little light-headed comes before the film even goes above sea level. A rugged and reckless photojournalist named Alex Martin (Winslet) bounds into an airport somewhere out West, eager to get back to New York City for her wedding the next day. And if it sounds like she’s cutting it a little close, wait until you meet Dr. Ben Bass (Elba), a neurosurgeon who’s racing back to Manhattan in order to operate on a 10-year-old boy. Even if the forecast didn’t call for a massive storm — one that grounds all outgoing commercial flights — a responsible doctor would probably not choose to fly in the night before a major procedure (and Ben is a responsible doctor, his prudent nature a sharp contrast to Alex’s relative impulsiveness).
But Alex has a bright idea, and she shares that idea with Ben because… well, it’s not entirely clear why she shares it with Ben. Maybe she wants to split the cost? Or could it be that there’s something else that makes the imminent bride want to spend the day with an obscenely handsome stranger? Either way, she ropes him into chartering a plane to Denver, and away they go.
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A Dutch-Palestinian director whose previous features include the politically supercharged “Paradise Now” and the inspirational singing competition drama “The Idol,” Abu-Assad is both a fire-starter and a classicist, and his glossiest project to date finds him compromising on each of his strengths in order to play into them both. The crash sequence, which arrives just a few minutes into the film, is telling proof that he’s unsure of how gruesome his movie should be. The dread building up to the disaster is effectively nauseating, as Abu-Assad plants the camera in the cabin of the tiny private airplane and waits for the inevitable. The immediacy of this approach does a good job of foregrounding the characters (even the dopey pilot, who’s played by Beau Bridges and memorable only for the incredible golden labrador who serves as his navigator), but the calamity itself is shot with the dreamy politeness of a snow globe that’s been gently turned upside down. It doesn’t look fun, per se, but Kate Winslet has survived worse.
Working from a Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe script that’s as wildly uneven as the terrain on which it takes place, Abu-Assad’s inability to balance the raw against the romantic only grows more frustrating as the story continues. “The Mountain Between Us” wants to convey that its odd couple is on the brink of death, but it also needs to sell us on the idea that Ben and Alex might not mind being stuck together. The closer they come to freezing to death, the hotter they get for each other. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of shooting atop the 11,000-foot peaks of British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains is that the scenery is too vividly freezing for the drama to thaw into anything real.
Alex has a badly broken leg and Ben is bruised all over, but not even hypothermia can make these characters as weak as their writing. Alex is an extrovert with a world that’s waiting for her back home, while Ben is a reserved man with a buried secret and an arsenal of MacGyver-like skills; that’s really the only tension between them. She wants to hobble her way back down to civilization, while he wants to wait to be rescued inside the busted fuselage. The only time they feel like a believable couple is when they bicker over the right strategy (the nameless dog — such a good boy — serving as the child that galvanizes their makeshift family).
Elba and Winslet are so naturally magnetic that it’s easy to ignore the dramatic entropy of their brief encounter and project a deeper set of desires onto their characters; it’s easy to pretend that Ben didn’t actually just say “I need to occupy my amygdala” when he’s trying to excuse his “Candy Crush” habit (the accent helps), or ignore the fact that Alex is as very smart woman who does exclusively stupid things. Small doses of dark humor help keep things steady as our heroes make their way downhill, but it’s not enough to distract us from the notion that the real mountain between them… was love.
“The heart is nothing but a muscle,” Ben declares, but sometimes — he learns — you need its strength to survive. Maudlin and majestic in equal measure, “The Mountain Between Us” suffers the same paralyzing indecision that afflicts Alex and Ben: It can’t figure out if it wants to live, or if it just wants to make it out alive, and that makes it overstretched third act into the trying ordeal of all. Abu-Assad knows that a little risk can go a long way, but every choice feels like a matter of life or death when you’re standing on top of the world.
“The Mountain Between Us” opens in theaters on October 6.