The disaster movie will never go out of fashion because cinema audiences will always be drawn to tales of human peril, whether they’re concerned with sinking boats, burning skyscrapers, impending meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or mountaineering accidents, such as Baltasar Kormákur’s impressive, tense blockbuster Everest. This survival story is based on real life events from the mid-1990s, when two commercial expedition groups led parties to the summit of the world’s highest peak before bad weather set in; it is partly based on climber Beck Weathers’ book Left For Dead, though the screenplay also incorporates dialogue from audio recordings made on the day of the ascent, and not – according to the director, anyway – Jon Kraukauer’s book Into Thin Air. Today, of course, commercial climbing on Everest is more popular than ever before; if you have $65,000 and time to spare you too can attempt to reach the peak. Approximately 4,000 people have successfully done so, though hundreds have died attempting to join them, while it’s estimated that there were 1,000 people at Everest Base Camp this year (the growing popularity of the climb was highlighted by the number of mountaineers that had to be rescued when the Nepalese earthquake struck earlier this year).
There’s little new or even surprising with regard to the way this film plays out: we spend the first hour getting to know the various characters as they travel to Nepal, meet each other and then ascend to the Everest Base Camp, where cheery bonhomie and group drinking sessions mask the underlying individual determination and competitiveness. The core cast is quite large and Kormákur attempts to spend plenty of time with as many characters as possible, but the focus repeatedly returns to brash Texan Weathers (played by Josh Brolin) and New Zealand mountaineer and guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). Theirs are the only families we get to see (Robin Wright and Keira Knightley play their respective wives, both hanging nervously on the end of a phone for news), while the rest of the characters are not affored such time-consuming luxuries; it would have been nice if the screenplay acknowledged that the Japanese or Nepalese mountaineers that feature also have loved ones, but I guess there’s not as much money to be made in either country as there is in the US or Australia. Fleshing out the cast are a number of actors who manage to make the most of their supporting roles, including Jake Gyllenhaal as Scott Fischer (another seasoned climber and expedition leader), Emily Watson as Helen Wilton (co-organiser of the expedition), Michael Kelly as journalist Kraukauer and Sam Worthington, John Hawkes, Thomas Wright and Naoko Mori among those playing professional and amateur mountaineers.
Even if you hadn’t seen a trailer or a review, and even if you were unaware of the true story behind the film, it won’t come as a surprise when the climb begins that the tension increases. As the expository early dialogue reveals, the climbers will be operating at the same height as a cruising 747 jet when they near the summit, in the so called ‘dead zone’, and some will not be able to make it to the very top due to oxygen shortage, frostbite or a number of other potential physical problems. And these problems duly appear along the way, combining with the extreme conditions, some questionable decision-making by some of the mountaineers and guides and a lack of secure ropes at the climb’s most precipitous point. It makes for a truly edge-of-your-seat cinematic experience, with the tricky shoot taking place on the mountain itself as well as in Pinewood Studios (though this soundstage footage blends in comfortably, as does the older 1996 IMAX documentary footage of the mountain that is used, which was actually shot while the real life Hall, Fischer et al were climbing; in fact the IMAX documentary crew assisted survivors at the time). It is quite a feat to have made this film, especially given the relatively short period of shooting in the Himalayas.
The brief, nausea-inducing looks toward the foot of the mountain will make the blood rush to your head, while Salvatore Totino’s cinematography will leave you drooling in awe at the majesty of the peaks and surrounding landscape. Thankfully the writing and the acting are of a higher standard than you would usually expect of a disaster movie, too, and thus the characters’ actions ring true while the dialogue, understandably given the use of actual recordings, sounds suitably authentic to my ears; the sense of realism in an otherwise extraordinary setting is accentuated by the deaths of some of the characters, which are moving but without ceremony and certainly not milked for dramatic possibilities. All told this is a fine spectacle movie, a gripping cinematic experience and one of the rare films that is well worth watching on the big screen in 3D, if you have the chance to do so. Despite the immense technical achievements of the crew it must be said that it’s a film that has obviously been designed for Big Audiences, and though it explores the bonds that are formed between people under such extreme circumstances to a reasonably sufficient extent it lacks the insight of, say, Kevin MacDonald’s documentary Touching The Void, which covers similar ground. One other criticism is the fact that there’s an uncomfortable lack of focus on the Nepalese characters, who we rarely see struggling up and down the mountain ahead of the climbing parties; when the storm hits and the (generally, but not exclusively, white, male and western) main characters are fighting for survival there’s no sense that the sherpas are also in danger, though obviously they were in real life; I must have missed any mention of their safe return, if it is actually included in Everest‘s final cut, and audiences will have to wait for Jennifer Peedom’s forthcoming documentary Sherpa for a proper appreciation of their culture and work. Overall, though, this is a satisfying addition to the growing list of big budget disaster movies in a year that has been decidedly short on blockbusters of quality.
Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur.
Written by: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy.
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Naoko Mori, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly, Thomas Wright.
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino.
Editing: Mick Audsley.
Music: Dario Marianelli.
Running Time: 121 minutes.