From the very physical Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy of the superb survival drama 127 Hours, comes a film with a simple premise: to depict the true story of the 1996 mountaineering ascent and descent of Mount Everest that unfortunately proved fatal for 12 people. Everest focuses on two of the expedition teams who ascended the mountain at that time, one led by pragmatic and warm Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and another by thrill-seeking Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, John Hawkes, Keira Knightley and Robin Wright round out an impressive cast.
The quality of the casting matches that of the overall production, which took the filmmakers up about 16,000 feet on Mount Everest itself, on two other mountainsides in Europe, and finally in a massive soundstage. The fact that technology and filmmaking practice has advanced to the point where a shoot like this is feasible makes for a bit of a milestone in film history. And because of the largely natural environs in which Everest was shot, it follows that it’s visually stunning. The location photography lights up the big screen, and more than justifies a theatrical spectacle.
Beaufoy and co-writer William Nicholson work hard to give the characters intensely naturalistic dialogue, doing justice to the very real tragedy that they’re depicting. And while Beaufoy’s focus on one character in 127 Hours ended up making him more of a universal avatar, in Everest the challenge is to humanize quite a large group of survivors and would-be survivors. While there’s not an especial depth to these characters, the writers succeed well enough in getting the audience to care for them (leading to a few later moments of earned schmaltz). So the most important flaw of a disaster movie is corrected: death is not just a statistic.
The actors give suitably harrowed performances, and the film runs like clockwork from the joy of discovery to the struggle of perseverance to the pain of loss to a bittersweet ending. That’s all you could have asked of Everest, and that’s what it delivers, in a great-looking and well-made package. I’ll use the mountain itself as a kind of metaphor. When asked why he climbed Everest, George Mallory replied, “Because it’s there”. When asked if I would recommend this film, I reply, “Everest is there, it works, but the degree to which it grabs you is the key.” Mileage will vary. For me, I respect it, I like it well enough for what it is, but it doesn’t particularly grab me.
While the film doesn’t hit me as hard as I know it will others, it is a very impressive achievement in technical filmmaking. It’s frequently beautiful, the cast are game, and the writing is a cut above the stereotypical disaster fare. Everest is exactly as advertised, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Meet it halfway, and I’ll be glad if the mountain moves you. 7/10.
P.S.: There’s a cruel irony that unfolded around the Everest production. In April 2014, when the second unit was shooting additional material, nearby on the mountain several other climbers were preparing to ascend Everest. When sherpas were bringing supplies to these climbers, an avalanche struck and killed 16 of the sherpas and guides. It’s a bitter irony that the Everest crew were in the vicinity of a greater loss of life than that which they would depict on film.