18 Sep

Review: Everest: At the Top of the World & Yet…Still Left Wanting

Movie Review: Everest

At the Top of the World & Yet…Still Left Wanting

Just back from seeing the movie Everest (yes, back from the movie, not from climbing the mountain itself!), and I want so much to report that it was a great movie. Alas…

It pains me to say that it is not a great movie. Because I was really really wanting it to be a great one. And it’s not that there aren’t great things about it. In fact, the IMAX/3D experience happened to be one of the best 3D movies I’ve seen. In my previous 3D movie ventures, the glasses have been bothersome and the 3D seemed caught somewhere between 2D and 3D so that the special effects were ultimately more distracting than enhancing. No such thing in this movie. The picture was as sharp as reality and the foreground and background were so entirely natural that I felt as if I were there (versus in a movie theater seat with some terrifying digitally manufactured animal suddenly emerging out of the background into the foreground and onto my lap). No, this was majestic, mountainous grandeur at its best. I heard that most of the movie was filmed in the Dolomites, certainly not a mountain range to sneeze at, and here the movie makers certainly made you feel as if you were in the very high foothills of Mount Everest, beginning with base camp at some 17,000 feet above sea level and then at all four camps along the way to the summit at 29,029 feet (some 5,000 feet short of cruising altitude of the Boeing 787). So first point in favor of the movie: the scenery. But then again, this is a movie called Everest. If you are going to create and title a movie Everest, that’s just a given. In fact, that’s just the entry level ticket price.

What next then? Acting, for sure. An all-star cast of characters including Josh Brolin, who plays a great Beck Weathers; Jake Gyllenhaal who does an absolutely wonderful job portraying Scott Fisher’s “Hey man” personality, and Jason Clarke who does an equally good job at playing Rob Hall and showing exactly how opposite in style he is to Gyllenhaal’s Fisher. For clarification purposes, Rob Hall was the expert mountaineer who had summited Everest five times previously (the most ever at that time for a non-Sherpa) and then opened up his own company to guide people to the summit. Scott Fisher, another acknowledged great mountaineer, but was also a friendly rival of Rob Hall in competing for clients to guide up Everest. Beck Weathers, a stereotypical outspoken Texas doctor, was Rob Hall’s client.

Yes, the movie is based on a true story and there have been multiple accounts written about that ill-fated 1996 climbing season. The most well-known and commercial account was Jon Krakaeur’s book, Into Thin Air, published within a year after the tragedy. In addition, David Brashears, acclaimed mountaineer and  filmmaker was on the mountain that year with his team, filming for an IMAX movie which was released in 1988. Anatoli Boukreev, the lead guide for Scott Fisher’s company, later published his own memoir of the tragedy, countering some of the criticism that had been leveled at him in Krakaeur’s account. Beck Weathers, who was reported dead (and his wife and children were actually informed of that), somehow under miraculous or amazing odds managed to survive a night in the snow and then with frostbitten feet and hands, walk down to Camp 2, stunning everyone there including Jon Krakaeur who had in some accounts, left him for dead in order to save his own life.

But that gets away from the actual movie. Or does it? The movie is supposed to portray the events of what happened. And in the space of two hours it generally does that. In a nutshell, we see how that season was set up for disaster because the guiding business to the top of Everest had blossomed and there were numerous guide companies at base camp that year, with clients who were paying a lot of money to get up that mountain. That was the primary issue, and the issue from which all other issues stemmed: too many people trying to get up to the summit within a very narrow band of opportune time; the inter-guide company negotiations (or lack thereof) about who could take their clients to the summit and when; and also the very practical need to secure ropes and place oxygen tanks all before any guide company could take their clients to the summit.

The movie portrays all of that. And it is convincing in its detail of the mountaineering, the cold, the precipices, the labored movements and misjudgments that occur when breathing very thin air at twenty-plus thousand feet. The problem with the movie is in what it doesn’t portray: a good story that gets you invested in the plot and the characters.

This isn’t for lack of plot, which at its most basic is a group of people, gathered at the base of one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, who try to summit the mountain and get down safely before anything happens to them. Will they get to the top? Will they get down safely? If they don’t, why don’t they? And once they get down, what happens to them?

In this case, the screenwriters stuck so closely to the script that they portrayed reality to the tee. And in doing so, they took all the story out of it (and I admit that it is completely ironic that I am complaining about adhering to reality since I am usually the one complaining about embellishment in book to movie conversions!). But in this case, I wish they had searched for some additional angles to enliven the real, and what could have been, very dramatic story line. Instead we have a beautiful movie without a point, partly because they took a bird’s eye view and never came down deeply enough into one or two stories that would have made it both real as well as compelling.

Now, not to be stingy, the movie did try to incorporate story lines. The first major one was Rob Hall and his pregnant wife (also a climber and knew exactly what would happen what Rob Hall’s fate was their last conversation). The second was Beck Weathers and the relationship to his wife and children back in Texas. But neither of those stories takes wing. This in spite of Keira Knightly and Robin Wright desperately wanting another moment with their husbands on screen.

And so, what we are left with is a beautiful movie, a beautiful mountain, and a lot of dead and devastated people at the end. Wow! That sounds like it could have been the summary of a Shakespearean play, and indeed one wonders what the bard would have done with that story. William Nicholson and Simon Beauty wrote the screenplay; Baltasar Kormakur directed the movie. Everyone here has done yeoman’s work with this movie, but unfortunately one leaves the theater wishing for a little more bard.

In his poem Sunday Morning, Wallace Stevens says, “Death is the mother of beauty.” Everest (both the movie and the mountain) are a great reminder of the truth of that statement. It doesn’t matter whether you are a mountaineer in search of that beauty or a filmmaker seeking to capture that beauty. Everest will attract and, in the end, death will have us all.

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