EVEREST. Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Michael Kelly, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira, Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robin Wright. Directed Baltasar Kormákur. 121 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
Based on the 1996 disaster which took the lives of several climbers, this film depicts the gruelling challenge presented to mountaineers by Mount Everest. It doesn’t wring every drop of potential from its story, but a good cast and strong technical ability below the line make this an occasionally tense and moving story of human endurance.
New Zealander Rob Hall, played with subtle force and scant regard for accents by Australian Jason Clarke, began the first commercial Everest climbing business in 1992. Our narrative picks up in the 1996 climbing season, with Hall’s company having enjoyed several years with great success. Hall farewells his pregnant wife, portrayed with true pathos by Keira Knightley, at the airport, and heads to Everest basecamp to train his team of clients. The film is full of terrific location work, melding footage of the cast in real mountainous tundra with digitally augmented Himalayan backdrops. This creates a very real sense of the mountain, and the danger and awe that it so easily inspires.
However, several other entrepreneurs have started their own operations, and there appear to be a few too many trekkers to feasibly reach the summit safely. This comes to a head when one of Rob’s group members almost plunges to their death after waiting too long for a South African contingent to cross a crevasse during a training trek. The scene is well mounted and tense, but it seems to fall short of the terror that the moment calls for. Director Baltasar Kormákur has not worked on this scale before (admittedly, few filmmakers have tackled such geographical heights), and the staging of moments that ought to be thrilling is a little workmanlike. However, most climbing scenes throughout the film convey the physical struggle that they face to summit – you feel the biting cold and the chilling wind, as well as the vertigo of swaying over a bottomless precipice, shot in dizzying overhead compositions.
Rob’s subsequent calls for an ordered summiting schedule fall on deaf ears, so he teams up with fellow group leader Scott Fischer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a rock star’s swagger, to ensure their clients reach the top on their chosen day. Among them are brash Texan Beck, mailman Doug on his sophomoric Everest attempt, and journalist Jon, who is writing an article about the climb. As Beck, Josh Brolin plays it arrogant and slightly unlikable, which make his character’s arc slightly disengaging (despite its amazing real life trajectory). However, his presence allows John Hawkes to shine as Doug, with a role that taps into the actor’s ability to play an underdog with eminent congeniality. Michael Kelly’s Jon is admittedly underdeveloped –knowing that his book ‘Into Thin Air’ was a source for the script creates reasonable suspicions that he will survive – but he brings a logic to the character’s difficult, and possibly selfish, decisions.
Of course, as they approach the mountaintop, an unforeseen storm tears through the valley below, and despite the warnings coming from basecamp, the climbers are caught up by the astounding power and ferocity of the mountain. With dwindling oxygen supplies and their climbing teams splintered, the limits of endurance will be tested. As the historical pedigree of the film makes clear, not all of the cast will return from their journey. Several deaths are treated with such astonishing insouciance that their impact is not one of horror, but one of pure awe that the mountain can render human lives so small.
Ultimately, it’s well made and has a list of acting talent that would make any blockbuster envious, but it falls short of reaching the lofty heights is aspires to. For this reviewer, moments which could have been heartbreaking or pulse pounding were sometimes a little weak. That’s not to say it’s a bad film, but it could be better.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 17.