Breaching the earth's stratosphere at a virtually unimaginable 29,029 ft. above sea level, the Himalayan-based Mt. Everest is the planet's tallest mountain. Many climbers have perished attempting to reach the summitone statistic claims a staggering 1 in 4 people do not make it off the mountainwhile others have lived to tell astonishing tales of their arduous trek. Straightforward and gripping, "Everest" is a true-life adventure story with a dire genesis: the so-called 1996 Mount Everest Disaster, wherein the lives of eight people were lost during a violent blizzard. The film is admirable in its authenticity and avoidance of sensationalism. Director Baltasar Kormákur (2012's "Contraband
") and screenwriters William Nicholson (2012's "Les Misérables
") and Simon Beaufoy (2010's "127 Hours
") follow the facts fairly closely, opting for truth over invention. What the picture lacks is a deeper exploration of why so many climbers are willing to inflict physical torture upon themselves and risk their lives for such a hazardous hobby. This question is briefly broached, but with lines such as, "When I'm on the mountain, I feel like I'm reborn," it is disappointingly answered only in abstract pull-quote terms.
In April 1996, two separate expeditionsAdventure Consultants, headed by New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and Mountain Madness, led by veteran climbing guide Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal)begin their ascent on the south face of Everest. With base camps set up along the way, the climbers endeavor to reach the summit by May 10. Several succeed, but with temperatures brutal and an intense snowstorm blowing in, the groups become stranded overnight above the altitudinal pointthe Death Zone, as it's calledwhere life cannot be sustained due to insufficient oxygen levels. A fight pitting man against the elements is about to transpire.
"Everest" takes its time, a life-and-death saga posing as a travelogue for well over an hour. The scenery, captured by cinematographer Salvatore Totino (2012's "People Like Us
"), is awesome, making pit-stops early on to the Namche Bazaar, Tengboche Monastery, and The Climbers' Memorial, dedicated to honoring the fallen climbers who have gone before. As the elevation rises and the stakes increase, so does the old-fashioned situational tension. Dramatically, there are a handful of armrest-clenching moments, but these come from subtle momentsone exhausted hiker's wobbly legs on a narrow cliff, another who could easily fall if the traction on his boots were to give wayrather than grand set-pieces. Sharing far more similarities with real-life 1993 drama "Alive" than the action-centric likes of 1993's "Cliffhanger" and 2000's "Vertical Limit," director Kormákur is forthright in telling a story more about the ordeal of human endurance than calculated thrills.
The ensemble is bursting with great actors, which makes their roles' shortage of complexity somewhat of a missed opportunity. Indeed, the characters are more or less attributed only a couple traits/background details apiece. Rob Hall has a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) who wants him home before the birth of their daughter. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) is a doctor who has left behind his respective wife (Robin Wright) and kids (Mia Goth and Stormur Jón Kormákur Baltasarsson), determined to reach the summit despite sinking trepidations and health issues. Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) is a spirited mailman grateful to be a part of the expedition. Yusuko Namba (Naoki Mori) is a 47-year-old matriarch hoping to be the oldest female to make it to the top. Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) is a journalist whom some audience members may remember went on to release a best-selling book about his experiences, called "Into Thin Air." As for Scott Fischer, he is an independent-minded guide who believes the only climbers should be ones qualified enough to take care of themselves.
Jason Clarke (2015's "Terminator: Genisys
") and Josh Brolin (2014's "Inherent Vice
") are the closest to leads as the film gets, they and their co-stars fully surrendering themselves to the demanding requirements and harsh conditions of shooting predominately on location in Nepal and the Italian Alps. Emily Watson (2014's "The Theory of Everything
") is excellent as nurturing base camp manager Helen Wilton, radiating warmth and, eventually, sorrow. As Hall's worried wife Jan, Keira Knightley (2014's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
") does everything she can to sell a thankless part played largely over the phone, and succeeds. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal (2015's "Southpaw
") is severely underused as Scott Fischer, off-screen for long periods and frequently existing in the periphery.
"I hope I get there, and get home," Weathers says at Base Camp Three, days away from Adventure Consultants' final fateful ascension. This sentiment is shared by a number of the climbers in "Everest," leaving one to yearn for better explanations as to why reaching the summit of this monster of a mountain is more important than their very lives and the chance to see their families again. If the film opts to only fleetingly discuss this topic on a flowery level, the forces of nature rumbling toward them and the imminent tribulations they face prove captivating. Well-made and technically tenacious though the picture is, "Everest" would have staked an even greater emotional impact had the characters been afforded the same attention to detail as their magnificently daunting setting.