Review: Everest Captures the Ecstasy, Agony of the Journey

Sep 24, 2015

Everybody has a dream. In some cases, it's finding a great job or getting a good deal on a new car. Or perhaps you fantasize about performing to a sold-out crowd on Broadway, or winning the Kentucky Derby.

One thing is for certain: There have always been men and women who dreamed of triumphing over natural challenges, whether that meant swimming the English Channel or racing a dog-sled across Alaska or, in the case of many, scaling the heights of Mount Everest. 

Journalist Jon Krakauer's 1997 best seller "Into Thin Air" chronicled his 1996 trip to Kathmandu and his journey to the top of Everest, 29,029 feet up. If you read the book, you know what happened. Even if you didn't, you can rest assured it was not exactly a climb up Sunshine Mountain.

Director Baltasar Kormakur's Everest replays that expedition in classic disaster-movie style, with a colorful group of characters brought together by the desperate need to survive. There were at least 34 climbers trying to reach the summit, and one of the problems with Everest is that, once you start bundling these adventurers up in heavy coats and goggles, it becomes rather difficult to tell them apart.

Eventually, the movie has to narrow its focus to a handful of hardy souls, led by Jason Clarke, playing Rob Hall, who ran an agency known as Adventure Consultants, and Scott Fischer, who ran a rival company known as Mountain Madness; he's played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

It's easy to distinguish between these two, at least: Hall registers as a safety-first type, while Fischer seems to be the party-hearty wild man who is primarily interested in a good time. The two men merge their groups when it becomes apparent they have both planned to scale the summit at the same time. But what seems like a smart idea ends up creating a mess on the mountainside, especially when the weather takes a diabolically nasty turn.

As drama, Everest is often sketchy and overly reliant on stereotypes like Fischer as a happy hippie or Josh Brolin's portrayal of a proud, mucho-macho Texan named Beck Weathers. But when it comes to spectacle, the movie delivers the goods. The technical crew does not hold back when asked to whip up terrifying winds and merciless blasts of snow, and cinematographer Salvatore Totino captures both the glory and the nightmarishness of the adventure. When the storms roll up from the valley like sprawling, furious phantoms, the sight is brutally beautiful.

The physical consequences of trying to function in Everest's aptly named "Death Zone" are also graphically portrayed, as the climbers struggle with fluid-filled lungs, snow-blindness and lack of oxygen.

Kormakur leaves the agony on Everest occasionally to ratchet up the human side of the story. We drop in on the anguish being suffered back home by Keira Knightley, as Rob's pregnant wife, and Robin Wright, as Beck's seemingly estranged spouse. While neither actress is called upon to do much besides listening intently on the phone and weeping silently, they ensure that Everest produces a few tears in between the gasps.

Everest does not try to explore the psychology of the men and women who throw themselves into these kinds of perilous situations, but it does provide a potent picture of what can happen when mere humans defy Mother Nature.

Maybe, like the mythological Icarius, we are only meant to go so high.