Directed by Baltasar Kormakur (2015)
The notion of a massive-budget epic documenting a true, epic failed 1990s guided climb up Everest fell into the “big enough to fall flat on its face” category for me, and yet the preview and the initial trickle of reviews allowed me to imagine an “EVEREST” that might actually be highly enjoyable. Turns out it was quite solid as a film and a story, a sweeping account of hubris and failure, as well a massive cautionary tale on the power of nature over man. I’m a sucker for the crazy mountain climber stuff anyway, having recently gone to see the also-solid doc “MERU” in theaters as well. Just don’t ask me to climb anything steeper than a chair to change a lightbulb.
The film concerns the rapid explosion of packaged-tour excursions to the summit of Everest in 1990s, when emboldened climbers realized that, with a lot of cash and a little assistance from real sherpas, they could conquer the mountain in groups where they’d never have dared to try individually. This leads to the comic collision of three somewhat “rival” excursions all trying to hustle up Everest at the same time: Adventure Consultants, led by nice-guy Australian Jason Clarke, with his pregnant wife played by Kiera Knightley back home; Mountain Madness, led by a long-haired peak doggie played by Jake Gyllenhaal; and a no-nonsense South African team who just seem pissed to have to share anything with anybody. Their drunken parties at base camp and bunching together on the trails winding up Everest are enough to make one a climb-banning eco-warrior in a hurry.
Predictably – I mean, I did see the tell-all preview beforehand – things turn pretty rotten, but not on the ascent. After the euphoria of getting up Everest (for some – keep in mind that this altitude is so brutal on internal organs that one effectively has about 90 minutes to get up and down the peak before massive shutdown commences), the inevitable dramatic turn happens, and it’s a whopper of a storm. Break out the CGI, it’s about to get really nasty up here.
By this point Kormakur has built enough camaraderie between the viewer and the characters, and between the characters themselves, that all sympathies lie with getting these guys off Everest and home safely. Somewhat moldy dialogue is beside the point.
While no one’s delivering any prizewinning acting turns in this one, the other central character portrayed by Josh Brolin was my favorite: a “Dole/Kemp” t-shirt-wearing Texan climber named Beck Weathers (remember, these are real people) who storms into base camp full of bravado and braggadocio, while being internally pretty spooked about the reality of what he’s about to be up against. The turn in his character over the arc of the film is compelling, and I liked that he was cut down to human size while also retaining a sense of the heroic. The big takeaway is some weird combination of admiration and revulsion for the people that pursue these sorts of intense highs. I can’t imagine anyone being so ridiculously foolhardy with their own lives, and yet it’s incredibly badass that people still climb Everest, base jump, free climb, hang glide – whatever. “EVEREST” is an excellent way to spend a couple of hours riveted to an enormous screen, and I’m pretty impressed and a little surprised Kormakur and his team pulled this one off so well.