Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly and Robin Wright
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: September 18th
Everest never stops reminding us how small we really are. It opens on a long tracking shot of climbers struggling to summit, it frames its leads as specks in the the foreground with the mountain consuming the entire frame in the background. It makes a valid point that people have no business going near the top, yet still they do.
Director Baltazar Kormákur (Contraband), along with writers Simon Beauty (127 Hours) and William Nicholson (Unbroken), seeks to ask the question why by recreating the 1996 tragedy which saw 12 people die while trying to reach the top. Around that time, climbing Everest became a commercial venture with experienced guides leading people of varying expertise. The day of the tragedy, a number of groups including Adventure Consultants led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Mountain Madness led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) attempted to all reach the peak simultaneously, causing logjams at critical points — Beck, a paying climber, balks, “$65k to queue like I’m in Walmart” — and resulting in many being stuck in a violent storm.
The most surprising thing about Everest is not its sheer scope but its ability to handle intimate on an epic scale. A large ensemble cast can lead to easy caricatures but Kormákur gives each and everyone time to establish themselves. In fact, it’s possible that the best moments are the ones at base camp, forming bonds over tea and dancing to Ini Kamoze. It mostly shirks from leads yet it’s hard not to see Clarke as the hero, a hulk of nurturing warmth and reassurance. The rest of the cast are all excellent, despite spending most of the time completely unrecognisable and covered in smothering climbing gear. Brolin plays to boisterous type as a loud, Bob Dole supporting Texan; John Hawkes has an incredible turn as a tragic emaciated postman; Gyllenhaal, on a plum run of lead roles takes a backseat, channelling a little Anthony Swifford from Jarhead; and House of Cards Michael Kelly is solid as the tag-along journalist who’s there for more than just vocalising the viewers questions. It does let down its female leads — Watson, Wright and Knightley — who are all good too yet have to settle for scenes on the other end of phone and radios.
And as to the why, why people spend a years wages of a pretty well paid job for a 1-in-4 change of death. Everest definitely points towards the urge to climb being fatalistic and coming from a desire to defy nature — summiting requires entering the Death Zone, named so for its lack of oxygen to sustain human life. At the same time, when it’s explicitly asked during a quiet moment at base camp, one climber sees it as a panacea to life, as if the thin air at high altitude lifts a black fog of depression.
Everest is big in every sense and, as such, demands to be seen on as large a screen as possible. Even the 3D works, being immersive rather than intrusive. Kormakur has created something that is tragic, euphoric and exhilarating all at once. You’ll feel the ecstasy of ascending the Hillary Step and summiting, quiver at the horror of frost bite and shake at the vertigo-inducing terror of crossing the Khumbu Icefalls as he uses every inch of IMAX screen to show an eternity below.