The prestige cast, the fact that it’s been released in the midst of all the festival awards hopefuls and the true story basis might make Everest look from a distance like a gritty man-vs-nature drama that plumbs the depths of the human condition in the face of the void.
In fact the more important clue about the tone of the film is the wide release on the largest possible screens. Everest is a big screen adventure – not quite a rip-roaring swashbuckler given the fate of some of the characters and their real-life counterparts, but the large screen captures the awesome scope of the locality beautifully and heightens the sensory experience of climbing the world’s most famous peak. It’s the story of a disastrous 1996 day when several teams of adventurers reached (or tried to reach) the summit, where a confluence of awry planning, bad weather and too many people came together in the worst possible way – few of them dangerous enough in themselves, but making for the worst possible combination of conditions. If you don’t know anything about the real story you’re better off not reading up on it prior.
[/caption]As you live the story with the characters you get a good idea who you think will live, but like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, Everest (true to life as it is) surprises you to a degree that’s quite affecting when various victims meet their fates. Kiwi mountain climbing guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leaves his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley –fine enough in a small role, but just like the ‘Australian’ father and son in Pacific Rim I don’t know why they couldn’t hire a New Zealand actress) at home in Christchurch and meets his team of clients and employees in and around Kathmandu, taking them through the motions of preparation.
[/caption]The opening scenes serve not only to establish Rob as the nice guy hero who wants to do right by everyone safely, they provide exposition about everything you just know is going to go horribly wrong later –from the disorientation from lack of oxygen to the curious phenomenon where your body makes you think you’re burning up, promoting you to tear clothes off and expose yourself even more to the cold. Everyone from brash Texan Beck (Josh Brolin) and mild mannered postman Doug (John Hawkes) to guide Harold (Martin Henderson) bond while they prepare, but there are so many people preparing to climb that year Rob convinces cowboy rival operator Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal) to club together to save space and resources, but the snivelling South African team wants none of it, laying just one foundation for everything that’s going to go pear shaped later on.
The fact that the movie is exciting and visual even before the snow really hits the fan is testament to director Baltasar Kormákurand his cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s gorgeous and thrill-ride visuals. The danger doesn’t really hit until a fairly decent way into the movie and when it does, it’s like a train ploughing into a crowd (complete with bodies falling left and right). Kormákur (who directed 101 Reykjavik all those years ago) manages to make it stunningly visual even as it turns from thrilling to heartbreaking, and both the giant screen and performances by a great cast sucks you in every step.