WRITTEN REVIEW – Everest (2015)
Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson & Keira Knightley
Music: Dario Marianelli
Release Date: September 18th 2015
It seems that every year a technically ambitious film shows up towards the latter half of the year with prestige attached to try and generate awards buzz. In 2011 we had ‘Hugo‘, ‘Life of Pi‘ in 2012, ‘Gravity‘ in 2013, ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)‘ in 2014 and in 2015 we seem to have three movies that fit the criteria; ‘The Martian‘, ‘The Walk‘ and ‘Everest‘, with ‘Everest‘ being the first one out of the gate.
Coming from a director who is not known for making high-concept technical showcases, but featuring an A-list cast and based on the true events of the 1996 Everest Disaster, ‘Everest‘ could go either way. But does this 3-D, IMAX showcase impress on more than a technical level or does it fall from its lofty heights?
In the mid-90s there was a large boom in the tourism industry for climbing the highest peaks in the world, with Mount Everest, at 8,848ft, being the highest summit on the planet. In May 1996 two teams planned to reach the top of the mountain; Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall (Clarke) and Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal), at the same time due to the over-crowding of the mountain. However, once the two teams reach the top, they face difficulties in getting back down due to severe weather, ever-dwindling supplies and being accompanied by people unprepared for the journey. The two teams must try and work together to get down from the mountain without falling before they freeze to death in the unforgiving terrain.
With every disaster there is always a lesson to be learned so when portraying that disaster on film it’s important to make the lesson apparent. For example, believe it or not, the sinking of the Titanic is NOT a story about love. It’s a story about hubris. A similar act of hubris is what caused the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster in the first place and ‘Everest‘ does a terrific job at getting across the setting and the context for not just the disaster but for mountain-climbing of this scale. Early on in the movie Rob Hall gives a speech letting his climbers know what they are in for;
“Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747. Once we get above…the south col, our bodies will be literally dying. It’s not called “The Death Zone” for nothing, guys.”
‘Everest‘ is an oddly educational movie as it shows the process a person has to take before they can attempt to climb Mount Everest. There are numerous base camps set up at progressively higher points and you have to do numerous practice climbs near those camps so your body can acclimatise to the thin air. It takes around 40 days before you can attempt to “summit” Everest and you have very limited windows to reach the top. It’s almost a routine business in the 1990s with Rob Hall being paid $65,000 per-person to make sure they reach the top and get down again in one piece. It was this commercialisation-gone-too-far aspect that heavily contributed to the 1996 Disaster. There was also a journalist accompanying them, so the need to push on to make sure he made it to the top as opposed to playing it safe and stopping early was another factor. It’s a unique story-telling angle where getting to the top of the mountain, while difficult, was not where the main problem was. It was getting back down.
It was also the human desire to accomplish more and to push limits, which is where the characters come in. While none of the characters, all of which are based off the real life people, are written in a particularly compelling way, mostly due to the size of the cast, we do get enough as audience members to sympathise with them, like them and understand why they’re climbing Everest. Whether it’s to combat their own demons, to inspire people or to accomplish personal feats (Naoko Mori plays Yasuki Namba, who at 47, was the oldest woman in the world to climb the seven highest summits in the world), the information is laid out well in the first half of ‘Everest‘ so that the second half can primarily focus on the disastrous events that led to the death of eight people.
While the characters aren’t written at an Oscar-calibre level, the performances are very strong and humanise the true people being portrayed. Jason Clarke is a great lead as a compassionate individual whose kindness ultimately leads to his downfall, Jake Gyllenhaal’s laissez faire attitude to mountain climbing makes him a great contrast and we have the superb-as-always Emily Watson at home base communicating with them through walkie-talkies and satellite phones (mid-90s setting, remember). This cannot have been an easy shoot with a lot of location filming and the actors being restrained by huge costumes and face masks but the great performances shine through and they’re wholly committed to these roles. Josh Brolin also has a great role as Beck Weathers and John Hawkes plays the every-man Doug Hansan. Both characters are incredibly likeable and while the characters aren’t compelling, you get attached to them and grow to like them.
Dozens of climbers went up Everest during the Disaster and eight of them died. I highly recommend NOT looking up who died before seeing the movie so you can be surprised and witness the movie unfold without any fore-knowledge.
Speaking of which, ‘Everest‘ is a harrowing cinematic experience. Mountain climbing is brutal, but ‘Everest‘ really doesn’t pull any punches. Many of the deaths, particularly the first two, are so understated that they’re haunting and ‘Everest‘ is an intimidating watch as it puts into perspective just how human beings are not meant to trespass in such inhospitable areas. It’s not a movie about trying to inspire others to climb and achieve big things, it’s about reminding us of our mortality and our limits as well as a reminder to be conscious of those limits. It’s a movie that really puts you in your place.
It also makes you feel very small because while the characters are a highlight in the movie and are executed moderately well, the mountain is the real star of the movie. ‘Everest‘ is actually a pretty cheap movie, all things considered, with a $55M budget, but with incredible location work and seamless green-screen effects, it looks three times that. At least. Through minimal CGI work, Oscar-Calibre sound-design and breathtaking cinematography, ‘Everest‘ is the type of movie that NEEDS to be seen on the big-screen. The make-up effects are terrific as well. All I’ll say about that, is that frostbite is NOT pleasant.
Dario Marianelli’s score is wonderful as well, minimal in most places to underscore the action and to add an ever-present sense of dread, but it builds at the necessary moments to really give the audience a thrill-ride that is nearly un-matched in 2015. If there’s one production issue I had, it’s that many of the coats and costumes looked the same so from a distance it was hard to tell who was who, especially since a lot of the cast are wearing face-masks. It’s not a huge issue, but maybe using different colours for minor characters would have benefited more. But then you run into the issue of not accurately depicting the events in a wholly visual way, but that’s a topic for another time.
‘Everest‘ is a wonderful technical accomplishment, a great ensemble character piece and a harrowing disaster epic that really puts you in your place as an audience member. It’s a harrowing, intimidating watch but it’s also thrilling and smartly-constructed. The characters aren’t breaking new ground, but they’re depicted with confidence and sincerity, even from the minor cast members such as Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Debicki. There’s even an edge-of-your-seat helicopter rescue in the third-act where you could feel the entire movie theatre holding their breath as it happened. ‘Everest‘ is one of the most captivating experiences of 2015 and works as a reminder that over-ambition can be a catastrophic downfall, not just for yourself but for everyone around you.
I give ‘Everest‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 22nd Sep 15