Ever thought about taking on the epic task of climbing a mountain? Well Everest may very well put an end to that. It tells the harrowing true story of the infamous Everest mountain climbing expedition that took place in May 1996 when an eclectic group of climbers and adventurers (played here by the likes of Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal) embarked on a dangerous mission to the highest point on Earth. But an unexpectedly violent storm causes things to go very wrong, challenging the climbers to endure blistering winds and freezing temperatures to survive.
If you’re going into Everest expecting an all-out action movie then you’re going to be very disappointed indeed. What’s most surprising about it is just how little it resembles that sort of movie. Apart from one scene fairly early on in which Brolin’s spirited climber Beck Weathers tries to cross between two ice ridges on a shaky ladder, it’s more about the personal moments of human emotion and the determination to succeed and survive than it is about elaborate set-pieces.
This is both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand it gives us a much more intimate experience, something a little bit different to what we’re used to with this type of thing. On the other hand it can be kind of frustrating when the script doesn’t go into enough depth about these people and what makes them motivated to embark on such an arduous, almost impossible task that few humans will ever experience. Although the backstories of the key characters are lifted straight from the real life event – pregnant wives back home, being motivated to inspire school kids etc. – its content to rest on the surface and curiously unwilling to plunge its hands into the depths of the snow, so to speak, muster up real truth.
This issue is somewhat papered over by the fact that it has one hell of a cast to elevate the shortcomings in the script. Though people like Gyllenhaal and Robin Wright are underserved by limited roles that feel squashed under the weight of the sheer amount of other characters, the likes of Clarke, Brolin and particularly the always excellent John Hawkes bring their A-game and make us feel for them in spite of the lacking characterization. Others like Keira Knightley (as Clarke’s very worried and very pregnant wife back home), Sam Worthington, Emily Watson and Michael Kelly are all effective in their key supporting roles, even if the film feels somewhat like a distracting pick ‘n’ mix of Hollywood character actors.
Although action is not exactly at the top of its list of priorities, the concept of spectacle most definitely is. Director Baltasar Kormákur (of such eclectic fare as 101 Reykjavik, 2 Guns and Contraband) revels in the chance to show of the behemoth setting of the title, swirling and diving around it with aerial shots that should give anyone with even a touch of vertigo the heebie-jeebies. He also does a very good job of getting across the harsh conditions the climbers have to endure, whether it’s the freezing temperatures promising almost certain frostbite or the inescapable winds threatening to literally push them over the edge. If nothing else the film is a giant, three-dimensional warning that climbing Everest is not to be taken lightly.
Despite it never truly getting under the skin of its multitude of characters and ultimately falling short of the dizzying heights that it was aiming for, there’s something undeniably compelling about Everest. It builds its tension in a stagey way that makes sense for the story – the climbers literally tackling their mission in carefully calculated checkpoints – and you do really get the best sense possible of what it’s like to be on that mountain and facing such insurmountable odds.