As a climber, there is no more ultimate goal than to scale Mount Everest. If not just for the honor of reaching the top of the world, it’s also about cheating death on the way up, by braving brutal conditions and treacherous gaps.
These dangers came in full force in 1996, when eight people tragically died on Everest in a vicious, record-breaking storm. Save for this year’s earthquake-sparked avalanche that killed twenty-two people, no other Everest tragedy possesses as much notoriety.
With so much attention directed back to the mountain already, it’s either ironic or appropriate that the 1996 incident finally receives a feature film adaptation in Everest, a harrowing thrill-ride by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns). At the center of the narrative is kiwi mountain guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), whose mountain-climbing company leads a diverse group of climbers to the mountain top. Among the group: Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a brash, strong-willed Texan seeking to add Everest to his list of accomplishments; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), giving the mountain another go; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has already climbed six of the seven summits. Outside of the group is the bearded Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cocksure climber even in the face of the surging storm headed their way.
But what truly matters to Everest is not necessarily character development: the climbers themselves possess the same goal with differing motivators, and that's about the end of that. Rather, the mountain they climb plays the great equalizer, as it remains indifferent to the characters as it rains piercing snow, blows howling wind, and sports icy chasms. This is not a tale of breaking through elemental and mental barriers to achieve a dream, but of merely surviving on the descent. Man battles mountain, but only man cares about the outcome.In this sense, Mount Everest is not just the setting and objective of the film, but the cold antagonist as well.
Nature-as-character is nothing new to film, but the characterization of the mountain is the engine behind the film and the source for its numerous treacherous thrills. The filmmakers have done an excellent job in recreating the mountain’s most dangerous segments and the weather’s most violent outbursts. Documenting it all is a camera that glorifies the picturesque grandeur of the mountain as well as it spotlights the eyes-frozen-shut of ill-fated climbers.
This is no storm that can merely be outlasted: it must be escaped. Thus, the climbers in Everest find themselves constantly racing for something. The climbers race to the top. They just as quickly race to the bottom. Their friends from the base camps below race to help them. They race against a dwindling oxygen supply. They race to keep moving before freezing to death. This constant racing lies congruent with the high energy from the film’s more breathtaking sequences, and keeps Everest running fast even as its characters slow to a freezing crawl.
Everest also features great players in Keira Knightley and Robin Wright, whose respective characters – both wives and mothers - grapple with the harrowing thought that their husbands could die an icy death. They bring a warmer, heartfelt subplot that juxtaposes both the climbers’ stiff resolve, and the mountain’s cold roar. Everest is a story of inspiration and at once a warning to would-be climbers that there’s no risk-free climb to glory.
Written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur.
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, and Jake Gyllenhaal.