Everest, directed by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband, 2 Guns), and written by William Nicholson (Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) tells the true story of the ill-fated 1996 attempt to ascend Mount Everest that saw multiple commercial guided tours fall victim to a blizzard during the descent. The movie is based on the book Left For Dead: My Journey Home From Everest by Beck Weathers, a Texan climber who survived the ordeal, but in doing so lost half an arm, all the fingers on the other hand, and the tip of his nose to extreme frostbite. Weathers is played by Josh Brolin here, part of an ensemble cast that also includes Jason Clarke (Terminator: Genisys), who plays Rob Hall and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals), who plays Scott Fischer.
The movie focuses on Hall’s company, Adventure Consultants, one of the pioneers of the commercial climbing of Everest, something that’s come in for heavy criticism from conservationists. In the movie, he’s depicted as a good natured, conscientious climber, always focused on the paying clients safety and ability to climb – in fact, Fischer, (who is leading his own group of climbers to the summit) describes him as a “hand holder”, which carries the implication that he takes money from clients who are not the most expert climbers in the world. According to the movie, not only is this the case, but it also plays a part in his own fate.
I hadn’t actually planned on watching this one last night. It’s in my library of unwatched movies, but I had planned on watching either Operation Avalanche or The Girl With All The Gifts – Everest just happened to be on HBO at the right time, and I’m glad I watched it. I found it mostly gripping throughout. It does a good job of turning a real life tragic event into a dramatic piece without dropping into a cold documentary style, or blending it up into a schmaltzy melodrama. Kormákur, whose filmography includes more Icelandic movies and TV than bigger budget pieces, proves to be a pretty capable director, both in terms of corralling such a large cast, and making sure the greenscreen effects don’t overpower certain scenes. Some of the panoramic shots of the mountain at various stages are stunning.
The movie worked for me in almost every element. I concede that it’s hard to make an unlikeable movie about people striving against the odds, because unless you’re a miserable bastard you don’t watch movies to see people fail. That struggle to defy our limitations is something that we all need to experience as a species, even through the vicarious medium of cinema. It’s why people love Leo in The Revenant, and Sandra Bullock in Gravity. And it’s why, despite not setting the box office on fire, Everest grossed over $200 million on a $55 million budget. The grosses are due mostly to a lack of Big Star power (Gyllenhaal’s scenes are few, and parsed out) and a subsequently weak ad campaign, not the quality. Substitute Tom Cruise or DiCaprio for Jason Clarke and grosses would have exceeded $500 million on a $70+ million budget. The movie doesn’t work because of the casting, it works because of the story it tells. People against the fearsome brutality of nature – it wins all the time.
Another reason it worked well for me is that it contains a fundamental element that most screenwriters either never learn or forget to use: that movies of any kind need to contain a certain amount of education for the viewers. That sounds boring, right? I mean, who wants to sit through long, drawn out expository scenes? Nobody. But don’t forget that moviewatching is a passive experience. All we do is sit in a chair for a couple of hours and our brains do the rest. It’s the job of the moviemakers to make us forget that we are literally doing nothing all that time, and part of the screenwriter’s box of tricks is to teach us something along the way. It doesn’t have to be an extensive class in thermodynamics, it doesn’t even have to teach us about something that actually exists, but while digital artists and directors engage us visually, the writer needs to engage our minds, as well as our hearts. It’s something that you learn early on in the discipline – throw in a moment where we either learn something by proxy through the audience-identification character (Luke Skywalker learns of The Force in Star Wars), or we absorb information directly from the setting itself, and how well the movie depicts it.
I am not, never wanted to be, and never will be, a mountaineer, so although I know hundreds of people have scaled Everest, and figured it must be difficult, there was almost nothing about the venture I actually knew. Everest brought the whole thing to me – at least enough to make me hit some websites after the movie. By showing us the locations (I didn’t know Kathmandu was a sprawling city, for example, nor did I know what base camps actually looked like, nor that Everest isn’t just a giant piece of snow covered rock from top to bottom. I didn’t even know there were seven major summits, and people make scaling all of them a life’s goal), I was learning something I didn’t know before, and to me, that is golden. I learned a little more about mountaineering, about the effects on the human body from oxygen deprivation, plunging temperatures, and low pressure, and it really allowed me to feel more invested in the characters and their fates. If, like me, you’re not likely to summit the world’s tallest mountain peak, you’ll find Everest a fairly rewarding moviegoing experience.
I’ll close by mentioning that Everest contains over 200 bodies who still lay where they fell, mummified and preserved by the extreme conditions, some even acting as markers for new climbers, and that’s a pretty haunting statistic about a journey some people embark on who’s ambition exceeds their capabilities.