Friday, September 18, 2015

Because it's There: "Everest" impressively mounted but oddly uninvolving

Everest (2015)
121 min., rated PG-13.

A large-scale, stupendously well-made dramatization of the 1996 expedition tragedy that befell two climbing groups on their way down Mount Everest and took the lives of eight, "Everest" looks like the kind of white-knuckler designed for ginormous IMAX screens. It sure is, and it would mean more if weren't so uninvolving. Human connection is quite vital in a survival drama, so that when the film has reached its inevitably downbeat, potentially resonant closing cards, it should pack an emotional blow. The fates of these people are worth our cares and concerns only by defaultunless this were a tongue-in-cheek slasher movie, who wants to see anyone living and breathing not living and breathing anymore?—that "Everest" doesn't satisfy with much emotional investment as a fatalistic human drama. What it does do well, though, is give audiences the vicarious experience of being at high altitudes and feeling the frostbitten temperatures and overall human suffering.

Based on the tragically true events that led to Jon Krakauer's non-fiction best-seller "Into Thin Air" and honoring the real-life climbers by executing the hardships with the utmost credibility, "Everest" does deserve points for feeling less like a Hollywoodization with contrived peril and emotional manipulation. Director Baltasar Kormákur (2012's "Contraband" and 2013's "2 Guns") could have taken numerous shortcuts, but save for importing real snow and recreating a mountain in a Pinehood studio, he dauntingly shot on-location in Nepal and the Dolomites in Italy around 15,000 feet and under harsh, unforgiving conditions. When it comes to the film's technical prowess, it is on sturdier ground, but screenwriters William Nicholson (2014's "Unbroken") and Simon Beaufoy (2010's "127 Hours") never give the viewer human lifeforms that feel fully formed. For what it's worth, no one springs into a magical action-adventure hero.

"Everest" sluggishly takes its time getting to the summit of Mount Everest, but doesn't even take full advantage of that uphill climb in letting the viewer get a true sense of who any of these flimsily drawn people are or why they do what they do. The film follows New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the leader of the Adventure Consultants group's expedition, as he leaves pregnant wife Jan (Kiera Knightley) at home to go train his clients and climb the planet's highest mountain on May 10, 1996. Among the climbers are filthy-rich Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who's climbing against the wishes of his wife Peach (Robin Wright); divorced postal worker Doug Hansen (John Hawkes); and Japanese woman Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who hopes to be the first woman to climb all "Seven Summits." After landing in Nepal and making preliminary runs before their attempt to reach the summit, thirty-four climbers spread over into three groups and make their ascent. Touching the top, they all begin their way down as a brutal snowstorm blows their way, freezes their oxygen tanks, and strands the teams in "The Death Zone."

The gigantic cast portraying real people is an excellent roster of talent to have attached to a film, and all of them push themselves, looking frozen to the bone. Nothing against any of the performances, but each character is only identified with a defining trait or a one-line backstory. Receiving top billing, Jason Clarke might be the most affecting as selfless leader Rob Hall, who already calls his unborn child "Sarah" and promises his wife that he will return back home. Introducing himself as "100% Texas," Josh Brolin's gung-ho Beck Weathers might come the closest to having a personality. As mailman Doug Hansen, who's driven by wanting to prove to his children that they, too, can achieve their dreams, character actor John Hawkes brings his usual Everyman quality, but he doesn't get a whole lot else to do. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't get a lot to play, either, usually seen laying about and drinking as cocky, laid-back American dude Scott Fischer. On the other hand, Emily Watson does a lot with a little, relaying heartbreaking emotion as Helen Wilton, the base camp's mother hen. Also, as Rob's pregnant wife Jan and Beck's wife Peach, Keira Knightley and Robin Wright are both emotionally vivid and excel in thankless roles that mostly require them to act worried and wait by the phone. With all of that said, the star attraction really is the life-threatening Mount Everest itself, courtesy of Salvatore Totino's oft-breathtaking cinematography. The IMAX 3D format also makes use of that vertiginous sensation you want in a movie like this, namely during a rattling ladder crossing.

Despite the admiration that it was made at all, "Everest" just isn't as impactful as a movie called "Everest" should be. The tragedy is despairing, certainly, but it's not terribly rich with feeling beyond the surface. The screenplay fails to flesh out the characterizations and, not helping matters once the weather worsens, the characters become hard to distinguish beyond the colors of their Northface parkas and geographically where they are in relation to one another. Early on, when the climbers all sit around in a tent, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) throws the question out there, asking why they're going through with their arduous trek up Mount Everest, even when they know the consequences and have loved ones back home. Some might just be thrill-seekers; others have a lot of money or swell with hubris, so why not? Mostly, though, their reasoning boils down to British mountaineer George Mallory's quote, "Because it's there." No cut-and-dry reason can really explain why anyone would be such a masochist, but it's still problematic when we have no handle on what makes any of them tick. "Everest" can be harrowing and palpably shuddersome when the biting cold and the treacherous mountain itself are putting the climbers through the wringer, but anxiety and suspense only come in fits and starts when the film is already half over. An incredible true story deserved a more incredible telling where the human element wasn't left out in the cold.

Grade: C + 

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