It’d be easy to call Everest a man versus nature story, but that’s downplaying the extent to which nature dominates. It’s never a fair fight. Telling the true story of a 1996 storm that left a group of mountain climbers stranded at the world’s tallest peak, making the return climb treacherous and nearly impossible, the film creates an enveloping sense of natural danger. When the winds kick up and gusts of snow pummel the characters as they stumble along narrow paths, clinging to guide ropes near cavernous drops, there’s a convincing sense of disorientation and danger. One wrong step, one wrong decision, and it could mean certain death. In the film’s most haunting image, a struggling member of the group steps wrong, wobbles, and simply disappears, falling off the edge of the frame while a man in the foreground holds on for dear life. He glances back, notices with horror the empty hooks swinging in the storm, and then continues trudging foreword towards his ultimate fate. As one character ominously warns early on, “the mountain always has the last word.”
Shot with solid meat-and-potatoes sturdiness and completely convincing effects and stunts, director Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband) indulges in a few sweeping spectacular vistas, but otherwise keeps the epic backdrop in the background. He chooses instead to focus on the people making their way through the landscape, as they joke, bond, argue, succeed, struggle, and die. William Nicholson (Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours), no strangers to stories of remarkable survival, have written a screenplay interested in process and procedure, spending a great deal of time assembling the team and taking them through the steps of an ordinary climb up Everest, a fraught and fascinating prospect in and of itself. It’s clear how slow, difficult, and challenging it is to climb any mountain, let alone Everest. There are medical concerns, perilous heights, unexpected delays, deadly cold, and dwindling oxygen. And that’s before the storm even starts.
The main characters are a crew from New Zealand running an expedition up the mountain, a guide (Jason Clarke), a base camp supervisor (Emily Watson), and a doctor (Elizabeth Debicki). Their clients include a mailman (John Hawkes), a wealthy Texan (Josh Brolin), a journalist (Michael Kelly), and an experienced climber (Naoko Mori). Also on the mountain are rival groups, including one led by a brash American (Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to reach the summit, and one (led by Sam Worthington) going up the shorter mountain next to it and can only watch in horror as the storm clouds roll in over their colleagues. It’s not always easy to tell all these people apart, especially once they have oxygen masks over their faces and ice-covered hoods pulled low over their goggles. We see only figures struggling up the mountain, and then feeling the panic kick in once they desperately need to get back down.
When a mask is pulled off, revealing the character actor beneath, it’s easier to tell who is where. But maybe the point is to mimic some of the disorientation of thin air and exhausted lungs. The performances are solid physical presences, filling their corners of the frame with a sturdiness and confidence that’s all the more difficult to see fade away. Some are unpersuasively overconfident. Others are understandably worried. There are token characterizations to flesh out the ensemble. We hear reasons for the trip – to be brave, to be accomplished, to be awed – and overhear sentimental calls back home to nervous wives (Keira Knightley cuddling a fake pregnant belly, Robin Wright corralling teens). But these biographical details are sparse, adding only reliable extra gloom as the camera contemplates the thunderous darkness encroaching.
Kormákur shoots the proceedings with a relatively restrained eye. He doesn’t amp up the action, provide CGI dazzle, or find room for unrealistic cinematic heroics. As small mistakes and nature’s fury combine, death comes quickly for some, slowly for others, and narrowly misses still more. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s wide lenses capture an immense sense of beauty and danger, while the sound effects crunch and howl. It never comes to life as a personal journey, the characters remaining too vague to really develop, but as a view of process – of a feat of mountaineering giving way to a struggle to make it back alive – it’s gripping. As it narrows to consider the tiny interpersonal moments that seal each one’s fate, there are moving moments of triumph and pain, flashes in a storm that wipes away all certainty. It’s a big Hollywood epic with a small eye, with stories of survival not through any grand action, but through endurance and chance. It has the trappings of a disaster movie, but none of the thrill. It starts with cautious excitement, turns scary, then left me feeling only sad.