PLOT: Based on a true story, EVEREST recounts the 1996 expedition to the summit of Mount Everest by several groups of climbers, some experienced, some not, that resulted in multiple fatalities.
REVIEW: The trailers may bill EVEREST as an edge-of-your-seat thriller replete with stunning IMAX 3D cinematography guaranteed to make you feel as if you're 20,000 feet above sea level, but it is not a thrillride in the least. While the film does indeed feature spectacular visuals and a few sequences that'll give your heart palpitations, EVEREST is ultimately a somber tale about a group of people slowing dying on a mountain. It's a big bummer, if we're being honest, but an undoubtedly effective dramatization of a tragic true story.
EVEREST was directed by Baltasar Kormakur, who made the two passable/forgettable action-thrillers CONTRABAND and 2 GUNS, and here displays a solid grip on far more serious material. EVEREST begins as sort of rousing adventure filled with standard movie caricatures - it reminds you a little of a disaster movie's first act - but eventually transforms into a punishing lesson in the futility of battling Mother Nature. Not exactly inspirational, the film serves as yet another reminder (as if we needed one) that nature doesn't care about you, your mates, your pregnant wife, your family, your perseverance, any of that. You don't play in the neighborhoods she doesn't want you to. The film isn't quite as cold as the elements; Kormakur understandably lets sentimentality creep in, especially when focusing on the doomed characters' loved ones and friends who nervously await updates, but let it be known that EVEREST is frequently low-key, depressing stuff; not an experience that'll leave you booking your next big adventure.
If you don't quite recollect the details (I was guilty of this prior to the film), the film chronicles the ill-fated trip to the summit of Mount Everest by several groups of people in 1996, when extreme tourism was at its peak. Weekend warriors with fat wallets would pay thousands of dollars to get a bigtime thrill out of something like climbing a mountain you're really not supposed to be able to - as Jason Clarke's Rob Hall puts it, your body is literally dying when it's up that high. (Here's the part where I would comically shout, "Check please!") Rob is the founder of Adventure Consultants, a New Zealand-based operation specializing in bringing those weekend warriors to amazing heights. But he's far from alone; like everything else on the planet, Everest has practically become commercialized, hence there are plenty of groups fighting for positioning on the mountain. You'd think a gigantic object like Everest could sustain a few dozen people, but when you realize the paths are narrow and the windows of time when you can actually reach the peak are quite small, you understand why Rob is more than a little wary of this logjam of climbers.
EVEREST's script (by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) presents Rob's group in broad strokes; there's Doug (John Hawkes), a timid mailman who just missed making the full climb a year earlier; Beck (Josh Brolin) a full-blooded, gung-ho Texan; Yasuko (Naoko Mori), a gentle woman who has climbed the six other tallest mountains in the world; Jon (Michael Kelly), a writer for an outdoorsman magazine. These characters are fairly one-dimensional, and once they've told us their story they're sticking to it. Rob's crew is composed of den mother Helen (Emily Watson); Rob's right-hand man Harold (Martin Henderson) and best friend Guy (Sam Worthington), and again, these characters aren't given much in the way of great depth, but the cast is strong and the actors handle their slight characterizations well. Jake Gyllenhaal makes an impression in a supporting role as Scott, Rob's cocky rival whose go-for-it personality doesn't correlate with his physical state. Even the often thankless roles of the worried wives at home - here played by Keira Knightley and Robin Wright - are made effective thanks to the actresses' vivid performances.
But the true stars of EVEREST are the mountain ranges and director of photography Salvatore Totino (often Ron Howard's D.P.); the vistas painted here are marvelous, and Totino ably captures how very small the hikers look when up against the mammoth mountain. Seen in IMAX 3D, some of the more breath-taking moments in the film might literally take your breath away. If nothing else, EVEREST is a testament to the visual power of large-scale movies, where tangible locations speak for themselves and the screen isn't awash in noticeable CG (though of course there's still digital magic on display, quite seamlessly). You certainly will feel like you are there, and that's worth the price of admission alone.
The film's third act is both its reason for existing and its most troublesome section. The climb to the top goes awry for a variety of reasons - not enough oxygen, brutal storms, too much time wasted - and soon our characters are scattered about the mountain, basically awaiting their fates. Since everyone is (obviously) covered up in parkas and gear, it's often hard to get a handle on who's who and where they are in relation to one another, and the fact that we cut from one indistinguishable group to another while flurries obscure their identities doesn't help emotionally invest us . Some solid acting is still on display, yes, but the audience is left to simply watch as most of these characters lose their faculties and shiver to unconsciousness. There aren't any heroics, no action-movie adrenalin rushes; it's a rather slow, sad race to the finish line. That's the way it happened, of course, but in purely cinematic terms it's not very dynamic. EVEREST remains a visceral experience, overall, and thanks to its impressive scenery and likable cast, it's a good movie. But its slightly messy, inscrutable conclusion - not to mention the somewhat thinly drawn depictions of real-life people - leaves it short of being a 2015 high point.
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