You’d be forgiven for thinking that Everest, the latest star-studded blockbuster from the minds behind Gladiator and 127 Hours, is a resurgence of the kind of populist and corny ’90s survival thriller, a la K2 and Vertical Limit. The similarities are there in marketing, sure, but given the disasters that have taken place in Nepal over the last two years and the true story that Baltasar Kormákur’s film draws from, the film was bound to be a lot more self-serious.
Set in 1996, Everest centers on expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who pioneered the idea of guided tours up the world’s tallest mountain. On what seems like a normal, albeit overcrowded, day on Everest, we follow the climbers in Hall’s group, as well as competing groups of climbers, as they embark upwards, unaware of the storm on the Himalayan horizon. Everest is the sort of film that lives and dies by its ‘true story’ status. On one hand, it does a great job of recognizing the physical, staggered process of climbing Everest. Apparently mountain climbing isn’t as linear as films like Vertical Limit might suggest, instead, it’s fractured, back and forward, start and stop. Naturally that disavows a few easy narrative crescendos, and all the talk of logistics and the practicalities of climbing drag on, but it also feels quite genuine, which is a good starting point.
On the other hand, Everest’s biggest flaw is that there are just too many characters. Whilst that might be true to life, in its filmic form it’s the catalyst for a pretty serious lack of clear focus. Jason Clarke is quite good—and I think that’s true of each of his Hollywood starring performances over the past couple of years— but his screen time is shared with an ensemble of at least 20 other performers. It’s predictably star-studded—Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightly, Emily Watson, Sam Worthington to name just a few—but their roles play out in a counterintuitive way. The more stars, the more two-bit characters with minimal exposition, and when all but a few of those characters are anonymised for lengthy snowstorms, you more or less just stop caring about them.
This should really go without saying given the location and budget (which is big, but not huge relative to most films of this kind), but Everest has some pretty spectacular cinematography. Salvatore Totrino tells his own story with the camera, jumping from one gorgeous landscape to the other, and his aided by the film’s definite MVP: sound design. This is a film made to be watched in the cinema, and when we cutaway to X or Y’s partner back at home, the transition from whizzing, pulsating snowstorm to dead silence is really quite stunning. On a side note, the 3D (converted, of course) adds some depth to the scenery shots, but it’s otherwise intrusive and distracting, particularly in nighttime scenes, of which there are many, so I’d recommend going without.
This isn’t the sort of film you go into looking for nuance, but the most interesting undercurrent to this film, and one that definitely could have featured more, has to do with the fast rise of commercialized climbing. It’s a fascinating idea, that a feat once so ludicrous could become accessible to the point of tourist-y (dare I make a comparison to Jurassic World?), yet it’s only touched on briefly, and (like Jurassic World) it seems to become a minor detail once characters start dying. Of course, the other clearly commercialized aspect to the film is in its approach to the place of local culture. Everest is an interesting film to watch alongside the excellent Australian documentary Sherpa, given how little the Nepalese locals feature in the former beyond occasional advisor roles. While Everest was in production before the deaths of 16 Nepalese guides in 2014, it’s still a pretty glaring oversight that the film would so conspicuously play down their role.1
In most other aspects, Everest plays like a true story, possibly to a fault, as it’s left to occupy a weird middle ground between insightful character study and over-the-top disaster flick. Unfortunately, it spreads itself too thin character-wise for the former and is too self-serious for the latter—leaving the final product something that’s not particularly interesting or entertaining.