Everest (2015)

I see a lot of films in the theaters, but very few in 3D or Imax format thanks to a monthly subscription to MoviePass.  This is not a problem, because I prefer to be selective with what I see on Imax, and I believe that most 3D movies are merely a cash grab and not worth seeing in 3D.  However, there are exceptions.  Avatar springs immediately to mind as a film that felt absolutely immersive as a 3D Imax experience.  My general impression in the previews for Everest was that it would be a film worth seeing in 3D Imax format.  After all, one of the first productions made for Imax was a documentary short about Mount Everest (currently streaming on Netflix).  It did not disappoint.  Everest is essentially a disaster movie that finds a proper balance between dazzling visuals and telling its story while respecting the lives lost in a real life tragedy.

Everest is based on a true story, chronicling the events of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.  In 1996, a severe storm hit, stranding several climbing groups on the mountain and resulting in the largest loss of life in the history of people attempting to scale the highest peak in the world to that point (until 2014-2015 when avalanches resulted in an ever bigger death tolls).  The film depicts the lengthy preparations required to climb the mountain, due to the human body having to acclimate at various altitudes.

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At the center of the group is an experienced climber, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who runs a company called Adventure Consultants, a high-altitude guiding business that takes groups of clients up Everest.  Among the people paying them for their expert services are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori).  Tagging along with the group is Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist who is writing a piece on Rob’s company (and would later go on to write Into Thin Air, a best-seller detailing the events depicted in this film).  Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) runs another guiding company, Mountain Madness, with a Russian named Anatoli (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) as his lead guide, that ends up partnering with Rob’s group to help both of their expeditions when it becomes apparent that too many groups are planning to try to summit on the same day, creating a bottleneck of traffic on the mountain.  Keira Knightley portrays Rob’s pregnant wife, Jan, and Emily Watson and Sam Worthington round out the cast as part of Rob’s team.  The film boasts a loaded cast with several others, including Robin Wright as Beck Weather’s wife, Peach, back in Texas, adding supporting roles.

This film looks outstanding.  As someone who is terrified of heights, movies involving precipices, mountains, or skyscrapers can really do a number on me, and there were several times in the film where I was squirming in my seat.  While I’m sure most of this was made with a green screen, it is a film that truly makes you feel like you are up 20,000+ feet on that mountain.  Whether crossing rope bridges in the lower terrain to reach the first base camp to having to cross glacial ice with ladder bridges or a terrifying (for me) sequence where a couple of guides have to set a new fixed line of rope at the Hillary Step.  At that point, the director, Baltasar Kormakur, does something with the camera that caused a very unpleasant sensation in me right between my shoulder blades.

The film does a great job explaining the dangers of climbing Everest, not just the environmental dangers but what can happen to the human body during the climb.  The body is basically dying at that altitude, and so the ascent and descent is essentially a race against killing yourself by climbing this peak.  It also effectively stresses the health dangers of hypoxia, pulmonary edemas, and of course frost bite.  Despite the extreme exhaustion from the climb, the necessity to “keep moving” feels like the most important factor in surviving Everest.

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The way the film chronicles the story for much of the film is to use locations, base camps, and times as a way to keep the audience from losing track of what is happening, where it is happening, and why it is happening.  These are helpful, and probably as straightforward as they can be, given that climbers must go up and down Everest several times before attempting to summit the mountain.  Ultimately, the sheer size of the cast and the jumping between locations, not just the several on the mountain, but also in phone calls to Jan in New Zealand and Peach in Texas, can make it easy to lose track of things.  There were a lot of people involved in the events of that day, and there are a lot of moving parts and character threads to follow because of that.  Perhaps a slightly smaller cast and a more tightly focused story could have made things easier to follow.

Other than that, it is hard for me to find fault with this film.  It is a little slow to get going, the story itself is pretty straightforward, and there’s not a whole lot in the way of character development, but this is not a typical disaster movie where the characters are often secondary to the spectacle of the disaster.  Here, the motivations of several characters are shown, as well as the pressure on Rob and his company.  For someone like Doug, it is reaching the peak when he has failed several times before and may not have another chance at it.

Not all of these people going up the mountain will make it down, because of the impending disaster that, unbeknownst to them, awaits them.  An important scene early on has Krakauer asking the group why they do what they do.  Aside from the pat group answer, “Because it’s there,” Doug, a divorced father whose kids’ classes actually raised money for him to go and gave him a flag to plant at the top, shares about hoping his kids can see that “a regular guy can follow impossible dreams, and maybe they’ll be inspired to do the same… I’m climbing Mount Everest because I can. Because to be able to climb that high and see a kind beauty that nobody ever sees, it’d be a crime not to.”  Everest, despite the tragedy at the center of the story, is a breathtaking cinematic facsimile to the real life experience of climbing Mount Everest, and the closest that most will come to climbing that high and seeing that kind of beauty.  And to not see this movie in Imax 3D would be a crime.

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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