Some people dream of summiting the world’s tallest mountain. For those who’d rather stay at base camp, there’s Baltasar Kormákur’s “Everest,” a stunning cinematic display of the mountain’s soaring peaks and fatal pitfalls, with a tremendous story based on Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” “Everest” mixes outdoor action-adventure with searing human drama that will have you thankful you’re on the edge of your seat, and not the edge of a mountain.
Jason Clarke stars as Rob Hall, Kiwi mountaineering guide and head of Adventure Consultants guide operation. Clarke does some of his best work here, foregrounding the warmth and empathy in Rob, whom he portrays as a dad-like teddy bear and fierce protector of his clients. Those clients include drawling Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), self-effacing mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Krakauer himself (Michael Kelly).
Directly opposed to Rob’s style is Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s running his own outfit in a much more laid-back fashion. Still, the men are experienced guides who put their own egos aside in order to work and climb together safely. One of the elements that these guides face, in addition to the considerable natural ones, is the traffic on the mountain, due to the increased commercialization of the sport. While one might assume there’s room for everyone, on the treacherous passes and rickety ladders, waiting for another group to pass can be deadly.
It is the confluence of elements both man-made and natural that lead to the disastrous events that make up the second half of the film. It is everything you might expect: harrowing, queasy, vertiginous and heartbreaking. While director Kormákur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino showcase stunning mountain footage, the most important thing in the film is the people and relationships.
This focus on the human drama creates the opportunity for more emotional heartstring-tugging, but in the balancing act between the character-based drama and the mountain adventure action tale, the film sometimes loses its footing. While some characters are more fleshed out (Rob, Beck, Doug) with real motivations, fears, and backstories, there are others we barely know, or can even discern who they are, in the blinding snow and puffy snowsuits.
Ultimately, “Everest” is an achievement of production, capturing the landscape in striking cinematography. It’s also the compelling tale of mountains and the people who feel the need to conquer them, or be conquered in the process. Clarke’s performance shines, and ultimately it becomes a testament and a tribute to Rob Hall, because Hollywood films can only have one true hero. But at the end of the day, the real victor remains, as always, the mountain.