Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
EVEREST | 121 min | PG-13
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writer: Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson
Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Sam Worthington, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson and Keira Knightley
The IMAX documentary on the 1996 disaster that befell a group of climbers on Mt. Everest captured the real-life goings-on. Author Jon Krakauer’s first person account of the tragedy, INTO THIN AIR, effectively did so as well, maybe even to a greater extent. However, since the mainstream public doesn’t always turn out for documentaries or read books, an epic big screen adaptation was just begging to be made. Thanks to director Baltasar Kormákur, we see the white-knuckle tale come to life in EVEREST. Long on palm-sweat-inducing tension and large in scale, the production hits high notes courtesy of the talented ensemble and nature’s beautiful (albeit humbling) splendor.
The statistics are alarming: one in four people who attempt to summit the world’s dangerous peak die. Perhaps this is the draw for adrenaline junkies. In early May 1996, experienced climber Rob Hall’s (Jason Clarke) company Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) competing company Mountain Madness teamed up to lead two expeditions to the summit. Also on that trip were journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly), wealthy Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), mailman/carpenter Doug Henson (John Hawkes), summit-record-holding Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), Hall’s guides Harold (Martin Henderson) and Mike (Thomas Wright), sherpa Lopsang (Pemba Sherpa), and Fischer’s guide Anatoli (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). What lies ahead for them tests their skills and pushes their bodies to the limit – only the worst is yet to come. As Beck prophetically states, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.” Well, on May 10-11, the mountain has a lot of words for these folks.
Kormákur has created a breathtaking and harrowing film. Not only does it honor the mountaineers’ legacy, it also pays loving tribute to them. The dramatics play out akin to a horror film. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography captures the mountain’s majesty and its dangerous beauty. Even second unit and sparkling aerial shots look tremendous. The picture wouldn’t be able to reach such heights if not for the impeccable skill of the actors involved, extracting the melo out of the drama. Plus Dario Marianelli’s score is integral to getting those tears jerked out of our eyeballs – something that happens easily.
The main problem the film doesn’t quite surmount is the difficulty for some audiences to set aside their personal feelings on the matter. Yes, it’s hard to empathize with the team’s man-made extreme risk taking, putting themselves in danger as well as potentially endangering others. This was definitely a tragedy – one that borders on being irresponsible as it was completely preventable (don’t do dangerous things) – but the motivations for and consequences of their daredevil antics are much more complex: Hall had a pregnant wife at home, but felt compelled to follow his entrepreneurial heart. Weathers had a wife and two kids, and suffered from depression, but now admits this ordeal saved his marriage. Though William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s script dedicates a scene to addressing the proverbial elephant in the room, explaining what drove these mountaineers, it still might not be enough to accept. The film hinges on whether or not you’ll continue engaging in this emotional journey. If you do, and I think you should, there are many rewards.
While the film doesn’t make any overarching statements on where their story leaves us, it is a genuinely life-affirming tale. It’s now been 19 years and not much has changed. History continues to repeat itself. This was a wake up call and yet it’s still a thriving industry – one that’s been marred by more tragedies (like sherpas being exploited and dying, and the Nepalese government’s role in all this). The adventure-seeking spirit is alive and well as risk-takers will always be powerless to the titular mountain’s pull.
EVEREST opens tonight in IMAX 3D in participating theaters, and opens everywhere on September 25.