A Crash to Remember: Winslet and Elba do their best to elevate simplistic “Mountain Between Us”

The Mountain Between Us (2017)
100 min., rated PG-13.

“The Mountain Between Us” is a survival tale paired with a “will they or won’t they?” romantic drama — think “Alive” if the survivors resorted to hopping in the sack together rather than cannibalizing each other. That might sound like a ludicrous combination, but it is what happens in this adaptation of Charles Martin’s 2011 novel. Written by J. Mills Goodloe (2017’s “Everything, Everything”) and Chris Weitz (2016’s “Rogue One”) and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, “The Mountain Between Us” is a predominant two-hander (with a dog) in the snowy mountains, and the equally attractive, charismatic and reliably excellent Kate Winslet and Idris Elba are a big reason why this works more than not. It’s well-cast, strongly acted, and fairly harrowing, but it might also be a little too simplistic and moderated in its emotional impact to leave much of an impression even for hopeless romantics.

The Guardian photojournalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) and Baltimore-based neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) are strangers in an Idaho airport. They both need to make a flight to New York—she is getting married the next day and he has to operate on a patient—but it’s been canceled. When Alex realizes Ben is in the same boat as her, she hires a charter plane for both of them. Mid-flight to Denver, pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) suffers a stroke and the small two-seater crashes in Utah’s High Uinta Wilderness. Ben is the first to come to in the wreckage, while the pilot is dead and Alex remains injured and unconscious for 36 hours. Ben tends to Alex’s broken leg, and when she finally wakes up, he suggests they stay put, ration their pack of almonds, and wait for help. Initially, they clash in terms of weighing their options. Ben is cautious and Alex wants to be proactive, relaying the “rule of three”: they can survive three days without water, three hours without shelter, and three minutes without air. Since the pilot never filed a flight plan, no one will come looking for them, and Alex’s cell phone is smashed and Ben’s phone has no service. They only have each other (and Walter’s unharmed dog), and then they fall in love. You know, like you do when you’re about to die in the frigid wilderness.

Handsomely photographed on location in Canada on an actual mountaintop, “The Mountain Between Us” is solid for its first hour and trusts the inherent drama of this life-or-death situation. The crash itself is impressively staged and impactful, holding on the three actors while the green screen outside the plane is pretty darn seamless. Though never as grueling in the survivors’ desperation as other films before it, the film relies on body wounds, hypothermia and possible starvation for peril. A brief encounter with a cougar and a close call with a cliff are tense, although a conveniently timed fall through a frozen pond is a little more calculated. It seems absurd to have these two strangers get together when they’re trying to just survive, but once they find shelter, what better way to stay warm than to use their body heat? The close relationship that inevitably develops between Alex and Ben is actually low-key enough without getting mushy or radically changing gears, even if a revelation involving Alex listening to a message from Ben’s wife on his audio recorder isn’t all that revelatory.

Kate Winslet, American accent in check, and Idris Elba, keeping his British accent intact, shape Alex and Ben into root-worthy people and sell the fatalistic ordeal their characters find themselves in, and yes, they even go so far to make the viewer believe there is a little something burgeoning between them. And yet, the last fifteen minutes begin to feel needlessly drawn-out, and then, to cap it all off, there's a conventional, shamelessly melodramatic and, frankly, cornball coda that could force one to giggle and methinks that wasn't the intention. In spite of the actors’ efforts making the illusion that “The Mountain Between Us” might be more than a romantic drama transparently grafted onto a story of survival, this is an affair too lukewarm to remember.

Grade: C +