Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Nothing in the world feels as helpless as watching people suffer within an arm’s reach of safety. You can see them, you can hear them, you can almost reach out and touch them, but they might as well be on the moon. Help will not come. Only death.
Everest does not sugar-coat this cold — bone-rattlingly cold — reality, but it does dress it up a bit with adrenaline-fueled adventure that comes with climbing to the highest point in the world. Mount Everest, at 29,029 feet high, is the gold standard for pushing the human body to its most extreme potential. The summit is so high it shares an altitude with a cruising 747 jet. The air is so thin that the human body slowly fails as it gasps for oxygen. The edges are steep enough that one false step and a climber will never be seen again, their bodies are consumed by the mountain and its icy pores.
Why go then? That’s what reporter and author Jon Krakauer asks a group of climbers who’ve paid five figures to joust with nature on Everest’s slopes. “Because it’s there,” they all laugh, stealing George Mallory’s famous line about the deadly peak, a peak that killed many climbers, including George Mallory. Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest features Krakauer, author of the book Into Thin Air, but largely focuses on Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a dedicated and skilled climber who guides “climbing tourists” up Everest during the month or so of good weather that creates a window of opportunity over a collapsing glacier field, over a rocky plain, across a knife’s edge, up a vertical step of rock and onto the summit of the world’s highest mountain.
It’s no easy feat. The cold is relentless, the air is dangerously thin, the physical stamina required is second to none, and the weather is violent and unpredictable. All totaled up, everything is deadly, but nothing more than a climber’s own body, which slowly betrays its own muscles and nerves with every step. Humans weren’t made for these conditions, so it’s Rob Hall’s job to guide everyone up and down the mountain before their bodies fail them. And they pay him $65,000 for the privilege.
Hall, here played with a gentle warmth and crucial demeanor by Jason Clarke, is the star of this ensemble mountaineering adventure and he’s joined by his clients Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), his base camp leader Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), Krakauer (Michael Kelly) and a colleague with another company Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllehaal), as well as many other characters all portraying actual climbers and sherpas.
The film does not skimp on details, and routinely shows climbing in an authentic light, from the slow acclimatization process that is required for climbers to maximize the thin air on Everest to the tediously slow pace the climbers take as they lumber up the mountain. This is not Cliffhanger, or even that mixed cheese plate Vertical Limit. Everest, using much of Krakauer’s fact-checked text, and his personal observations, treats the events of the 1996 climbing season with delicate reverence.
As Hall and his company, Adventure Consultants, creep up the mountain, everything seems to be going well. The Everest newbies are struggling, but not dangerously so. As they prepare for a big ascent day, everything seems almost perfect until a rapidly moving storm sweeps up and over the mountain essentially stopping the expedition in its tracks after a successful summit attempt. The serenity of the snow and the mountains is suddenly gone, and the climbers are left stranded in deadly conditions. Hall and Hansen are highest up, and have a long way to go with little oxygen left. Below them Fischer, Weathers and others claw through the white-out conditions.
If you’re like me you’ll start getting very anxious in your seat during the second half of this film. These men are in mortal danger, and yet they shamble along with their coats open, their hands ungloved and their feet stumbling over rocks and patches of ice. Some men can’t even stand, and they slump down in their tracks to fall into a numbing sleep. You want to scream at them, “Hurry! Your life depends on it.” The thin air plays tricks on their bodies. Their muscles can only move so fast, and their brains flicker on and off from a severe lack of oxygen. Everest is killing them slowly, and there is nothing they can do except descend, if only they could stand and walk. Some men fall off the mountain, which a non-climber can understand and fear, but this slow death is worse — sinister and cruel.
What’s even worse is the small army of rested climbers who are held at bay by the storm, unable to ascend further than they already have because they lack oxygen, strength or the willpower to sacrifice themselves. In some cases, climbers are left on the mountain to die because they can easily slow down healthy climbers or pull them off the mountain. And even when climbers do die, their bodies are left right on the trails, because hauling them down is a risk all by itself. At one point, no one can get to two climbers, and all the base camp can do is put one climber’s wife on the radio to say goodbye as he drifts into eternity.
The facts of the 1996 climbing disaster on Everest are widely known, and have been documented in a number of ways, including the IMAX movie led by David Breshears, who returns as consultant, second unit director and Everest cinematographer for this film. This is an old story, but it’s given fresh new examination here with Kormákur’s brilliant filmed movie. It’s well acted, marvelously paced, as accurate as any historical movie can hope to be, and the cinematography is simply gorgeous. Some of the shots look like IMAX stills, with sherpas hauling goods over tiny bridges stretched across valleys, oxen cresting ridges against the backdrop of the Himalayas, and of Everest reaching into the starry heavens.
This is an incredible movie, one about heroism and its devastating limits in a place like Everest. The rules on that rock are absolutely absurd. And failure to comply to them usually results in fatalities. Yet every year people line up to risk everything and make the trek upward. Everest makes the joke that they do it “because it’s there,” but the film also makes a point to address another answer as to why people climb it — “because it’s magnificent.”