Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington
Running Time: 121 minutes
We open to a blank, blizzardy snowscape with the only blots on the shinning white screen being a string of climbers traversing a hazardously steep ascent. As the camera zooms out, we rise high above the struggling line of mountaineers and refocus on the ultimate goal; the summit of Everest and the most hostile environment on earth. What follows is the tragic story of the 1996 Adventure Consultants expedition to the top of Everest, which saw eight climbers lose their lives to a ferocious storm.
The film reverberates with a feeling of threat and impending doom; frozen corpses that have strayed a couple of feet from the roped path, the rumble of the rolling icefalls and the constant coughing and wheezing from ailing bodies that are simply not receiving enough oxygen are ever-present reminders – even before the final summit is attempted – that death could be just one misstep away. This sense of foreboding is certainly the main strength of this film, the clamour and anxiety that Kormákur manages to create with a real setting separates Everest from most other disaster movies. In comparison to the conditions at 8,000m above sea level, the apocalyptic triumvirate of tornadoes, tsunamis and earthquakes which adorn most disaster movies pale into insignificance. The mountain itself is transformed into a character and is akin to an omnipotent villain and very effectively establishes the ultimate David verses Goliath story; to summit and survive is a near-impossible goal for most of the group, as the elemental power of the mountain seeks to defeat them. Any competition within the group evaporates, for it is aptly stated by Anatoli, one of the expedition leaders, that “every man is in competition with the mountain”.
We follow the Adventure Consultants group, led by experienced mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), as they battle against the raging storm that has engulfed Everest, in their desperate attempt to survive. It is precisely this idea of survival and courage in the most adverse environment that is the other central facet of the film; it becomes a pure testament to human will. Doug is the character who is perhaps the most illustrative of this attitude: a divorced man working three jobs who looks to Everest to prove to himself that he can achieve something spectacular. Doug readily admits that he hopes to inspire the children from his local school and when asked why he is climbing Everest he responds “because I can”, a sentiment shared by the rest of the group. Kormákur portrays a very fine balance of bravado, courage and desperation within each of the characters. This provides the drive to climb Everest in the first place and is captivating to observe during their final ascent. Other than the devastating force of the mountain, the main difficulty faced by the protagonists is this internal struggle between ambition and survival.
Action is intrinsic to the very ordeal of climbing Everest and therefore does not require any over-dramatisation, whilst the film also have a very clear depth to it as well and this is particularly poignant in the moment where Rob Hall speaks his final words to his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), via a satellite phone in the middle of the storm. Everest does face the same old problem that most films based on real events encounter, out of loyalty to the source material and a need to convey the events as they happened, the film does get bogged down in the final third. In its attempts to portray reality, characterization is lost somewhat and the character arcs for everybody except Rob Hall are masked by the impenetrable snow storm.
Visually this film is sublime and for me stands alone in the disaster movie genre, for it manages to achieve a very real and immersive feel, and the horrors of the mountain and the fates of the characters are all the more chilling for it. The scenes shot at Everest Basecamp are integral to this feeling of reality, as we are plunged into the very scenery of the mountain and while the same images of straggly bearded men huddled in the middle of a snow storm do become a little draining and tedious, my word do you feel as if you are there with them.