Directed by Baltasar Kormakur
Why would anyone climb Mount Everest? This question delves into the psyche of humanity itself. People push themselves well past what humans should physically and mentally be capable of. In “Everest,” directed by Baltasar Kormakur, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks a group of hikers why they climb. Everyone responds in unison: “Because it’s there.” What should be a fascinating dissection of hubris and the human condition is boiled down to one line. The film never goes deeper than that, but it could and should have. “Everest” had the tools to be a great film, boasting decent acting and interesting cinematography, but it fails in nearly every aspect to connect these pieces together. What remains is a preposterous film that takes far too long to offer any thrills.
“Everest” is about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. In May of 1996, a group of climbers struggled to survive in a blizzard while near the summit of Mount Everest. The film takes its time getting to that blizzard. The first half is very dull, as the film takes too long to introduce the characters and their preparation to climb. There is very little drama in the first hour of the film, and that leaves the viewer mentally drained just as action picks up.
The group is led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced leader who is at odds with Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who leads a separate expedition at the same time. With Rob is a group of climbers with diverse backgrounds, including Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan who climbs to avoid his crumbling marriage, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman who works multiple jobs during his second attempt to reach the top. Also starring are Sam Worthington as Guy Cotter, a confidant of Rob, and Keira Knightley as Jan Arnold, Rob’s pregnant wife.
The characters have to fight for screen time, and this makes it difficult to connect with anyone. Clarke’s Rob does command authority, but he does not have enough presence to be the center of the story. Knightley is stellar as Jan but is given little time on screen as well. Her husband endures an avalanche while she is pregnant with their son, yet her strife is merely mentioned when it should be explored in depth. Knightley, a multi-time Academy Award–nominee, is left on her own to develop her character in a handful of scenes. The same goes for Gyllenhaal’s Scott, who is portrayed as having a drug problem. Scott is used more to provide comic relief, but it is clear there is more to his struggle that remains completely unexplored. Scott, on the mountain with the rest of the group, all but disappears for most of the second half. Solid acting is not enough to make the viewer empathize with these characters.
The script and direction fail to elevate anyone past being flat caricatures. Brolin’s performance as Beck has the most depth. While his accent is grating at first, the viewer will soon warm up to Beck, for his backstory provides him with motivation to climb and survive. This is supported by great cinematography. At one point, the camera takes on Beck’s blurred perspective as he is frozen in place. The viewer cannot help but empathize with Beck as he watches people leave him for dead. This is a rare instance of the film generating sympathy toward the characters outside of showing a mountain.
The cinematography shows flashes of greatness. Perspective is manipulated while on the mountainside. The camera wraps around the mountain only to zoom and focus on the small group. The climbers look tiny and helpless in the face of the great mountain. At one point the camera is inside a tent, with Rob breaking the fourth wall to get the viewer to appreciate the view of the mountainside at night. The camera comes out of the tent and looks briefly at the cliff, only to turn and show how happy the mountain makes Rob, an excellent use of camerawork, although it deprives the audience of a true beauty shot of Mount Everest. In the second half of the film, nearly every single shot is of or on the mountain. The shots are repetitive and leave the viewer numb to the action on the mountain. Despite the production’s best effort, the viewer will soon grow tired thanks to shots exclusively of icy snow.
The editing is fast and choppy. It’s rare for “Everest” to ever stay in a moment for more than 15 seconds. It constantly cuts from different angles and between different characters. This hurts the drama, as it makes it more difficult to get invested in the struggle of any one character. Scenes are almost exclusively very bright, with characters taking up a fraction of the white space. It does not lend toward excitement, but it does serve to highlight the strife of the characters overtaken by nature.
The struggle of “Everest” should be an epic one — one that explores suffering and death. Instead, the film is a chore to get through and explores little outside of the scenery. Talent has been wasted to create something utterly mediocre.