You’d think that the hardest part of climbing Mount Everest would be getting to the summit. While there’s no denying that reaching the top is one of the most arduous tasks anyone can undertake, it’s only half the journey for the people in Everest. The real challenge is their trek back home as severe snowstorms hit. In a way, Everest almost feels like two movies. One encompasses the majesty of Mount Everest. The other encompasses the mercilessness of the mighty mountain. Both, however, effectively capture this natural wonder’s dominating presence.
Based on a true story, the film followers several climbers on an expedition up Everest in 1996. Leading the group is Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) who has a beautiful, pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) back home. Aside from Hall, the character we spend the most time with is Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a doctor who left behind a wife (Robin Wright) and two children. The cast also consists of Jake Gyllenhaal as another group leader, John Hawkes as a mailman, Michael Kelly as a journalist, and Emma Watson as a woman at base camp. Outside of Hall and Weathers, though, the characters are mostly underdeveloped and, while we certainly don’t want to see them die, we don’t forge the strongest emotional connection to them.
By far the best character in Everest is Everest itself. Whether you see the film in IMAX or in a regular theater, not a second goes by when we don’t feel the sheer scope and scale of this mountain. As beautiful as Mountain Everest can be, it’s also beyond intimidating. The audience knows that any second somebody can fall down a chasm and perish. After ascending to the top, our unprepared heroes reach their vertical limits as they endure blizzards and a lack of oxygen on the way down.
Everest is often reminiscent of a 1998 documentary of the same name, which was also presented in IMAX. As a matter of fact, that documentary was in production around the same time as the events depicted in this movie. Director Baltasar Kormákur does a respectable job at dramatizing the 1996 Mount Everest disaster here through masterful cinematography and a strong sense of realism. Going into Everest, you might expect the same kind of overblown, corny disaster picture we usually get from Roland Emmerich. Despite the size of the movie, though, it feels surprisingly subtle.
Take the first major death in the movie for example as a person plummets to their doom. The scene isn’t played up with a dramatic choir or somebody screaming, “No!” It’s quick and blunt with no gimmicks, reminding us just how easy it is to die up there. The filmmakers never try to turn a disaster into fun and games. It’s brutal real life that pulls no punches. After watching it, climbing Mount Everest is one goal you’ll likely want to remove from your bucket list.
Kormákur and his screenwriters further achieve such realism by not turning their characters into wisecracking action heroes or cheap stereotypes. Granted, it would’ve been nice to get a little more character development and to learn a little more about these people. The real focus is on the Everest, however, and perhaps that’s where it should be. After all, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.”