Posted on September 28, 2015
On May 10th 1996, a storm hit Mount Everest killing eight climbers. It was the early days of commercial climbs and a group of mountaineers under the guidance of adventure tourism pioneer Rob Hall were making a bid for the summit. Amongst Hall’s team was journalist Jon Krakauer whose written account of the event, Into Thin Air, has become a classic of the mountaineering genre. That Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest largely follows Into Thin Air is a consequence of Krakauer’s journalistic rigour, despite the director’s insistence that his film is not a straightforward adaptation of this single ‘first-person account’.
Since 1996, numerous eye-witness accounts have appeared in bookstores, from High Exposure written by director David Breashears who was filming an IMAX movie on the mountain during the disaster, to Everest: Free To Decide by controversial South African team leader Ian Woodall and climber Cathy O’Dowd. Kormákur’s careful balancing of sources ensures he pays heed to a variety of arguments made in the aftermath of Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, including climber-turned researcher, Graham Ratcliffe’s assertion in A Day To Die For that teams on the mountain were in receipt of weather forecasts. Those cinema-goers familiar with the events are sure to pick up on Kormákur’s plentiful details; for newcomers they provide valuable cinematic texture.
For Kormákur, however, it’s the memoir of Beck Weather’s, a Texan doctor climbing as part of Hall’s team, which takes on most significance. Weather’s memoir, which devotes as much time exploring the climber’s personal life and character as it does the Everest tragedy, makes for a stirring, human perspective on the events. Journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) is kept on the outer edge of Kormákur’s film and, instead, climbers Beck (Josh Brolin) and Doug (John Hawkes), who’s taking his second shot at the Everest summit, are the focus of Kormákur’s poignant gaze.
Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the leader of rival adventure company Mountain Madness, usher audiences through the details and dangers of high altitude climbing. In spite of their contrasting approaches, Fischer’s expertise and hippie deference to the mountain converge with Hall’s own respect for high altitude conditions made manifest in his organisational diligence. Their shift towards collaboration is no match for Everest, however, whose high altitude conditions erodes the concept of ‘team’ from all angles.
“Everest induces extreme sensations of claustrophobia last experienced by cinema-goers in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity“
Kormákur’s Everest induces extreme, idiosyncratic sensations of claustrophobia which most closely resemble Alfonso Cuarón’s space-thriller Gravity (even the movies’ tag-lines are similar: ‘Never Let Go’ and ‘Don’t Let Go’ respectively). Despite pulling off disaster-movie spectacle that drags audiences into the dizzying, suffocating realm of the climbers, Everest is best watched as a story of human ambition, will-power and survival (not least out of respect for the victims).
No stranger to this ‘survival genre’, director Baltasar Kormákur (The Deep) homes in on the durability of the climbers’ resolve in the inhospitable landscape. The strength of their desire is a constant presence while conversations with family left behind remind us of the somewhat selfish nature of the climbers’ pursuit. Kormákur has more difficulty establishing the rational behind their ambition, largely due to the huge number of characters involved. The director ventures little further than George Mallory’s jest, ‘because it’s there,’ and a rather trite take on postal worker turned skilled mountaineer Doug’s wish to inspire children at his local school. But perhaps the absence of clarity in the climbers’ reasoning makes its own point: in his preface to Into Thin Air, Krakauer himself admits,
“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”
Kormákur’s overarching desire to “humanise” the climbers by balancing his sources is jeopardised by the space in which to examine each of them as the crisis builds. In such circumstances, and in light of the true-story’s inherent clichés, the overwhelming degree of empathy that Everest achieves is a testimony to the actors involved. Minimal space for character development has its plus sides however, aiding screenwriters William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) in their graceful negotiation of the event’s biggest controversies. Contentious characters, from the routinely stereotyped socialite-journalist Sandy Hill-Pittman to Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev (whose own version of events appeared in the contentious book, The Climb, as a direct response to Krakauer’s Into Thin Air) are kept on the periphery.
Of course, it’s beyond the scope of a two hour feature to encompass all elements of this widely debated tragedy and it’s likely Everest will leave captivated audiences reaching for the source material. Yet, by focussing on the storm’s magnification of earlier complications, Everest avoids placing blame and gives the mountain its due respect. The climax is bleak and distressing, amplified by the tragedy’s lack of straightforward answers. The issue of the mountain’s rapid commercialisation ricochets beneath the dramatic surface but Everest leaves audiences free to make up their own mind.
What do you think? Does Everest win or lose from the decision to ‘mash up‘ its sources and forgo a single perspective? Let me know in the comments below…
VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ 4/5
Running time: 121 minutes
Images: © 2015 – Universal Pictures
UK release date: 11 September 2015