Climbing one of the tallest mountains in the world is an inherently dangerous yet potentially exhilarating task. So is making a movie about a climbing expedition that turned disastrous back in 1996.
As Everest explains briefly at its outset, veteran New Zealand climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) developed a safe method to help less experienced individuals reach the top of mighty Mount Everest. For the first four years, no fatalities were suffered, in contrast with a historical ratio of one out of sixteen climbers dying prior to that. But the new method, and attendant publicity, also generated a huge uptick in the number of commercial expeditions. The unpredictable and often very dangerous weather patterns meant very narrow windows were open for ideal climbing conditions.
Into the Air, a book by Jon Krakauer, is probably the best known accout of what happened in 1996, but Everest screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy drew from multiple sources to craft a screenplay that, by necessity, fictionalizes the dialogue and individual events. Director Baltasar Kormakur takes a straightforward dramatic approach to the material, making it as intimate as possible by focusing on the men, and a few women, who figure into the story.
As the film begins, Hall says goodbye to his pregnant girlfriend (Keira Knightley) and heads to Nepal. Over a period of weeks, his team ascends to locations that are ever-increasing in altitude, allowing everyone to acclimate to the conditions. Hall’s expedition includes the fragile-looking Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), the boisterous Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), the experienced Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), and the writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), while his colleagues include fellow New Zealander Harold Harris (Martin Henderson), basecamp leader Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), and various sherpas.
That’s a lot of characters already! And there’s also Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), leader of another expedition; Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), Hall’s friend, who’s climbing on another mountain nearby; and Peach Weathers (Robin Wright), who’s back in Dallas and, along with Hall’s girlfriend, represents all the expedition family members.
Kormakur and the writers do a good job of setting all this up with relative dispatch while not rushing things, creating a pace that matches the slow ascent of the climbers. Director of photography Salvatore Totino, who’s often worked with Ron Howard, delivers a beautifully-lit and composed job, and the post-production crew merges Totino’s photography with an undoubted number of visual effects shots to create a movie that looks almost like a very striking nature documentary.
That also affects the narrative, however, as once the story reaches a certain point, it becomes bogged down in its firm refusal to sensationalize the material, reaching instead for melodramatic devices — sad, swelling music, and an awful lot of tears on brave faces — that only go so far. For much of its running time, Everest is a stirring story, and even if it falters, it’s still a compelling and cautionary tale of man’s limitations in the face of the overwhelming forces of nature.
The film opens today in 3D (Cinemark Legacy, Plano; B & B Wylie 12) and in 3D and IMAX (AMC Northpark 15, Cinemark 17, AMC Mesquite 30, AMC Firewheel 18 in Garland, AMC Stonebriar 24 in Frisco).