Climbing a mountain is probably the closest most people come to seeing God without dying. I’m assuming, because I would never be crazy enough to actually climb a mountain. The mountaineers in Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest are just crazy enough and end up paying the ultimate price. Breathtaking scenery abounds, aided by a great IMAX 3D release, but it often covers for serious script deficiencies and characterization as thin as the air.
In 1996 an tour group climbing Mt. Everest finds themselves trapped in the middle of a deadly storm. With several stuck on various parts of the mountain, they’ll have to do what they can in order to get down alive.
A group of A-list stars climbing one of the most legendary mountains in the world reenacting a true story of survival should be game, set, and match for prime Oscar bait, and there’s justification for it in some categories. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino creates some awe-inspiring compositions. There’s never a moment where the mountain itself diminishes in stature. In fact, many of the scenes are framed to emphasize how miniscule humanity is opposite this structure, from spindly bridges spanning an immense cravasse to tiny yaks carrying packs and the climbers themselves.
This idea of man conquering what they didn’t create appears to be the strongest element of motivation screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy give the group for ascending Everest. As the group all agrees during one moment of camaraderie, they’re climbing it “because it’s there.” This exchange, though, does nothing more than diminish the impact of the mountain and the group whose survival we’re meant to root for. Much of the script’s flaws seem to be created under the guise of something else.
Yes, you could say the group’s belittlement of the mountain as something easily conquered works under the guise of showing how much they underestimate nature, but it in the overall scheme of character development it shows a complete lack of reason, something that happens a lot here. Too often characters are given one defining motivation which is meant to sustain us and give us a reason to care. Case in point, Josh Brolin’s Beck calls his wife, Peach (Robin Wright) from the mountain after forgetting their anniversary. Based on their exchange we’re meant to suss out that their marriage is strained, but that’s stretching it. Is their marriage strained or are the actors just grasping for some type of emotion? Since this is their only exchange before Beck goes up the mountain, we’re never given any other discussion short of throwaway lines like his not telling her he was going up the mountain in the first place. Letting the audience infer certain things is fine, audiences aren’t stupid, but the scene must be set.
Characters and their background must have foundational background, especially in a movie where characters can live and die at the drop of a hat. Because the foundations are shaky on all the characters, their deaths end up having zero impact under the guise of showing nature’s mercilessness. Without spoiling things, a rather big name in the cast ends up dying for reasons wholly unknown. Said character complained of issues prior to ascending, but the audience is never given any indication whether those issues played into their demise. For all we know, the problem was completely irrelevant. However, one should never have to ask their movie buddy, “Hey, we haven’t seen [insert character] in 20 minutes. Did they die in that last scene?” like I had to. When the question is answered, there’s no mourning or discussion. Hell, the music doesn’t even swell up for the character.
The cast, for their part, certainly appear as if they’re going to hell and back. Jason Clarke’s Rob Hall is the closest thing to a lead performance the film has, and he’s great! Rob has a staunch set of principles, refusing to take risks so that everyone comes down safely. It is his nice guy affability and determination to bring everyone home ends up putting his life at risk. Keira Knightley plays Clarke’s pregnant wife Jan, serving her purpose of crying and providing motivation for Rob. Their final phone call in the movie certainly wrenches the tears out of even the most jaded viewer. Emily Watson as Helen Wilton wins for second best performance. Helen runs the base camp and her horror keeps the audience on edge as she’s forced to listen to radio transmissions, woefully inept at being able to do anything to save the men.
It’s sad that the women are so marginalized in a very male-centric movie. Outside of Knightley and Watson, Elizabeth Debicki, after a delightful role as The Man From U.N.C.L.E’s femme fatale, plays a base camp nurse, while Naoko Mori plays the only female climber in the group. Mori’s Yasuko is such a frustrating wasted opportunity to give this some added depth outside of being a story about a group of bro’s (in terms of male, not temperament) trying to get back to their wives. We’re told Yasuko has climbed six of the seven summits, with Everest being her final hurdle. When author Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks her why she’s doing it, the script never gives her a chance to answer. Krakauer even says her character hasn’t answered the question, and we’re never given anything sufficient conveying why she’d want to climb six summits, let alone this one. Unfortunately, she’s the required shot of estrogen. While the person truly existed, I have little doubt the script could have eliminated her completely without shedding a tear.
John Hawkes and Brolin are the only characters with any discernible definitive background. Hawkes’s Doug is the one “doing it for the kids.” He’s the nice guy we don’t want to see die because he’s so damn nice. Brolin’s character actually has a way better story about his time on Everest than is actually shown. The script truncates at least 90% of his time on the mountain, and it’s shocking because what truly happened to Beck Weathers on Everest is nothing short of a miracle. The script includes a shocking twist for his character, that should make you gasp, but it plays like any old moment. This isn’t a moment of resurrection like it should be, but treated with all the tact of a character shaking himself. Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, and Martin Henderson are all decent, but they do little outside of round out the cast; the latter two leave you saying, “Oh, I remember that guy. Didn’t know he was in this” and that’s about how they’re treated.
Everest commits some pretty sloppy screenwriting sins, mostly the fact that we don’t care about these people living or dying. The true story of the 1996 Everest disaster is probably best detailed in Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. On its own, Everest in IMAX 3D certainly looks gorgeous, but it’s pretty much just a two-hour documentary with A-list talent acting out events.