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Film Review | Everest

Despite its star-studded cast and equally impressive locations, this based-on-a-true-story disaster bonanza is something of an unrewarding uphill climb. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
29 September 2015, 1:40pm
Frozen waste: Jason Clarke leads an expedition to the top of Everest in this star-studded disaster flick
Frozen waste: Jason Clarke leads an expedition to the top of Everest in this star-studded disaster flick
Disaster movies are a normally lucrative affair. More so when you pair them with those other box office friendly gremlins: picturesque scenery, a star-studded cast and that ever-reliable ‘based on a true story’ tag.

Director Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest tags all three of the above, and while its marketing department may not like me using disaster movie as its primary generic marker – the film is clearly adamant to sell you the ‘heroic hardship of common men’ angle – this is ultimately what emerges from this cynical and thematically muddled foray into the icy summit.

Inspired by a 1996 expedition to the Everest by two competing companies – Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness – Everest opens with ‘Adventure’s head Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) embarking on a journey to lead a pack of his clients to the Everest summit, despite the fact that his wife, Jan (Keira Knightley) is heavily pregnant with their first child.

Once at base camp in Nepal, he assembles his fellow climbers: Doug (John Hawkes), on his third attempt at climbing the challenging peak but determined to proof that a ‘regular guy’ could accomplish something incredible; Beck (Josh Brolin), an alpha male with a wife, Peach (Robin Wright) and kids back home and Yasuko (Naoko Mori) who has climbed the six other peaks and is now adamant to reach the seventh.

The group – completed by ‘Adventure’s (Emily Watson) and medical doctor Caroline (Elizabeth Debicki) – are also joined by journalist John Krakauer (Michael Kelly) who’s there to cover the climb for a high-profile climbing publication

The mood is hopeful as the team prepare themselves to accomplish the impossible, but the first sign of tension appears when Rob encounters his erstwhile business rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhall) of Mountain Madness.

 

Though the chilled-out Scott isn’t looking to pick a fight, the reality remains that there are simply far too many climbers glutting up the mountain range. And when the weather conditions promise further dread, what was to be an idyllic exercise in self-overcoming runs the risk of taking a truly dangerous turn.

It is highly unfair to rate a film based on what it isn’t – you should just comment on what you have in front of you – but given the somewhat extreme measures our protagonists have chosen to endure for their journey up the infamous Nepalese peak, a focus on the psychological make-up of the climbers in question may have made for a more involving narrative. Instead, what we get is a half-baked championing of their – highly dubious – struggle, and since we don’t have  full picture of what drives them forward, sympathizing with them becomes a bit of a challenge.

What we are served up with are mostly clichés: Doug who is egged on by schoolchildren who helped sponsor his trip; Beck by an impulse to cut through day-to-day drudgery. Granted, this is based on true events, and ‘real’ people tend to be even more clichéd than their fictional counterparts. But Kormákur and his screenwriters – William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy – never make an effort to angle this in an interesting enough way. Why should you care about these people, much less their foolhardy attempt at climbing Everest? The film certainly doesn’t offer up any compelling clues in this regard.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of real tension. A more judicious filmmaker would really have made the mountain into the main character. Majestic and deadly, Everest is an awesome sight in the truest sense of the word. But without well-defined characters, what we get are thrilling enough set pieces with no real emotional weight.

Wives – Knightley and Robin Wright squeezing in all that extra screen time – are wired in to offer help and motivation when things get tough, but again: even if it really went down this way, it just comes across as a contrived – desperate, even – attempt to wring some bona fide human drama from the proceedings.

‘Man vs nature’ is a tale as old as time – quite literally, it’s probably humanity’s earliest story, and one that has certainly not lost its luster over time. But with his scattergun approach that tries to appease as many audience demographics as possible in one go, Kormákur has diluted his project to irrelevance.

A better recent example of this ancient genre would be the Robert Redford-starring All is Lost. But in that case, a clear creative decision was taken: the film is wordless, posing a challenge to the viewer and strengthening the lost-at-sea drama with a distinctive touch.

No such luck with Kormákur’s Oscar-baiting mix of melodrama and mountaineering acrobatics. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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