Majestic yet unforgiving, Mount Everest is one of the most dangerous places on Earth. With a summit higher than the cruising altitude of a 747, those brave enough to attempt to scale it must battle blistering winds, freezing temperatures and a fatal lack of oxygen. Unsurprisingly, many fail to make it that far. Given the punishing nature of this environment, it begs the question: why would anyone want to even try? It’s a quandary that isn’t fully answered by Everest, a taut, visually stunning true-life tale that never quite reaches the requisite emotional heights.
With a script by Oscar-winning duo William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), based on the real events of the 1996 disaster, Everest focuses on the survival attempts of two expedition groups, one led by Jason Clarke’s cautious kiwi Rob Hall and the other by Jake Gyllenhaal’s laid back Scott Fischer, when they’re caught in the path of a violent storm.
Despite the mountain only being first conquered in 1953, by 1996 ascending the world’s highest peak has become a mini industry, with amateur adrenalin junkies paying hefty fees for a guided tour to the top of the world. Everest takes place on the tipping point of this unregulated business, with base camp overrun by twenty different teams each attempting to scale the mountain at the same time, creating a chaos that will eventually lead to disaster.
And that’s exactly what happens when Rob and Scott’s teams are unexpectedly engulfed by a fierce blizzard as they make their final assault on the summit. With oxygen running low and the storm refusing to subside, the beleaguered adventurers make a desperate bid to make it down the mountain before it takes their lives.
As you might expect of a movie set on one of the most spectacular places on the planet, Everest is visually astounding. Director Baltasar Kormákur skilfully combines flawless digital imagery with practical effects to place us firmly on the mountain. From the shaky camerawork during a mini avalanche to the dizzying shots of a climber dangling over a seemingly endless crevasse, Kormákur evokes the stomach churning reality of Everest’s unforgiving terrain, rivalling Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity for immersive intensity.
The story is slow to get going with the setup in particular feeling over-wrought due to the sheer number of characters involved. Multiple teams may have taken part in the ill-fated expedition, but by trying to focus on so many people, Nicholson and Beaufoy don’t have enough time to fully explore them all. The best survival stories are personal journeys where an individual battles impossible odds, but with Everest we don’t gain enough insight into the characters’ private lives to fully invest in their survival.
That said, when the storm does finally strike, it’s one hell of a spectacle. As the body count rises and climbers succumb to the numbing temperatures, Kormákur swaps wide shots of the gorgeous horizons for tight angles where vision is almost entirely lost to the engulfing blizzard, creating a claustrophobic intensity that really ratchets up the tension. The director also does exceptional work in juggling everyone’s stories without letting the momentum drop for even a second.
One further downside of having so many faces vying for attention is that most of the talented cast struggle to standout. Given we spend most of our time following their characters, it’s no surprise the most affecting, emotional-wrought performances comes from Clarke, Josh Brolin and John Hawkes. Everyone else, though, comes across as one note, with Gyllenhaal especially wasted as a grating, carefree hipster, when his performance hints at a character with unexplored depths.
Boasting striking cinematography, tight direction and a star-studded line-up of capable performers, from a distance Everest looks set to be an extraordinary adventure. Yet, much like the mountain at the centre of the story, it’s when you venture further that difficulties emerge, with an overloaded cast making it hard to feel much for any one individual.
It’s still a gripping, exhilarating journey, just one that will ultimately leave you colder than the icy temperatures atop the world’s highest peak.
Runtime: 121 min; Genre: Thriller; Released: 18 September 2015;
Director: Baltasar Kormákur; Writers: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy;
Cast: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes
Click here to watch the trailer for Everest