‘Everest’ A Stunning Tribute to Ill-Fated Expedition (FILM REVIEW)

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The allure of Mount Everest is almost mythical. The world’s tallest mountain has captivated explorers and thrill seekers for time immemorial with its elusive summit, first reached in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Its awe is matched only by its treachery, with over 250 deaths attributed to the beast; most recently, in April of this year, 18 climbers lost their lives in a single expedition after an earthquake sent an avalanche cascading down the mountain. Respect is foremost when climbing Everest; the slightest mistake on the part of the climber, or the slightest change in conditions, can spell your doom. This was the lesson in 1996, when eight experienced climbers lost their lives in a sudden tragic storm. It was, until last year, when an avalanche caused the deaths of 16 climbers, the single deadliest accident in Everest’s long and storied history, and it’s the story explored in Everest.

The story of the 1996 disaster has been well documented, both on page and on screen, in the 19 years since. Most famously, writer Jon Krakauer (played here by Michael Kelly) chronicled the experience in Into Thin Air, which painstakingly examined the events leading up to the loss of life, and which almost took his own. While Everest is by no means an adaptation of Krakauer’s book, the film works, in its own way, as a sort of companion piece, and clearly owes a debt of gratitude to the author’s recounting.

If the story is unknown to you, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), New Zealand mountaineer and founder of Adventure Consultants, a company that led the obscenely rich on wild adventures, took a group of seasoned mountain climbers to experience the absolute zenith of planet earth. While on the journey back down, the expedition was hit by a massive storm, whose wind, rain, hail, and snow trapped the climbers near the top of the mountain with no hope for rescue or safety.

Everest tells the story mostly from Hall’s perspective and shies away from casting judgment in favor of a point by point recounting of the events leading to the disaster. Here is the biggest difference between this film and Into Thin Air. Krakauer’s book made no qualms in criticizing Hall’s decisions that fateful day, most notably his refusal to force one slow climber to descend before their window closed. While this event is covered in Everest, the film lets the viewer draw their own conclusions and, to a degree, paints Hall as a bit of a softy. His actions in the film are that of an emotional bleeding heart, who refused to deny a man the experience of a lifetime, standing on top of the world. The decision is almost admirable, brave even, if not for the loss of life.

Of course, that’s not the only mistake made on the mountain that day, and the tragic events are detailed with accuracy, despite feeling somewhat rushed. It’s a massive tale to tell within two hours, but director Baltasar Kormakur (2 Guns) does a fine job recounting it. Working from a script by William Nicholson (Unbroken, Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), the director paints a stunning portrait of Hall and his ill-fated team and of the mountain herself.

The use of IMAX 3D technology puts the viewer right on the face of the mountain with all its dizzying slopes and drop offs made all too real. At times, I found myself overcome with vertigo, not dissimilar from the effects of Gravity several years ago. In fact, Everest is the first movie since Gravity whose use of IMAX 3D felt less like a gimmick and more like the right choice.

The film is further bolstered by its cast, who in addition to Clarke includes Josh Brolin, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightly, and Robin Wright. With so much star power, you’d think there would be some competition among the cast, but all involved give reverence to the story, playing their roles with respect and grace. Knightly, especially, gives a particularly moving performance as Hall’s wife, Jan, despite her short screen time.

Everest is not a movie for everyone; many will surely be tested with the relatively slow moving first and second acts and it’s not difficult to see where some might be bored with the snail pace leading to the finale. And despite the film’s overall enjoyability and beauty, the parts of the story that were omitted in favor of Hall’s perspective could have served the film in terms of tension and emotion. In this way, I wish Everest had borrowed more from Into Thin Air and focused more on the expedition as a whole. Still, as a remembrance of Hall, the film works well enough, and is good despite its faults.

Though far from the best movie of the year, Everest is a welcome take on the disaster genre and a much needed positive cap on a mostly unremarkable last few months of movies. While I doubt it will win any awards (well, maybe cinematography and other technical achievements) Everest is more than a movie to watch simply because it’s there. In the end, it’s a film about passion and the human desire to push limits and experience to the absolute edges.

Everest is in theaters now.

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