Astonishing technical craft and an overqualified cast make Everest a different — and better — kind of thriller.
The last word always belongs to the mountain.
About halfway up to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) finally gets around to asking his group the obvious question: Why? Why do seemingly intelligent people risk life and limb to stand on the roof of the world? Frostbite, hypothermia, hypoxia, and just falling off the darn thing are only a few of the risks climbers face; as team leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) puts it, “human beings simply aren’t meant to survive at the cruising altitude of a 747.”
But when asked why, each climber makes the same joke in unison: “because it’s there.” Because they can. Because it’s impossible, and they want to inspire others. Because one in four have died on the mountain, and they want to be one of the handful that have reached the top and returned alive. That may seem insane to you or me, to push your body to its mortal limits just to prove something to yourself, but some human ideas are unexplainable that way.
Over two days in May of 1996, eight climbers perished in what was the single-worst disaster on Everest to date. (An avalanche last year, which killed 16, has since bested that number.) The reasons for what happened are manifold and have been dissected and debated in numerous books, including Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: there were too many climbers trying to summit at the same time, creating critical bottlenecks along the trail; too many of those climbers were inexperienced, having paid exorbitant fees to essentially check something off their bucket list; a sudden and devastating storm left everyone strung out along Everest’s face and totally unprepared. But the biggest answer, the biggest “why,” can be summed up more simply: the folly of man, and the cold cruelty of nature.
Baltasar Kormákur’s film, which tells the story of that ill-fated expedition with extraordinary verisimilitude, is almost more of a monster movie than disaster film. The monster here is Everest itself: unknowable, unpredictable, silent. It doesn’t discriminate in who it claims as a victim. The beginning of the film presents us with a large ensemble of meat for the mountain’s grinder, in the two separate groups of clients led by veterans with very different styles: Adventure Consultants, a New Zealand-based outfit led by Hall, and Mountain Madness, led by American Scott Fischer (a bearded, loopy Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s clear within moments that Hall is the “serious” one, and more conservative as far as what he’ll allow his clients to do, where just an hour’s delay is the difference between planting a flag and being trapped in a storm.
We meet Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a swaggering Texan who neglected to tell his wife he was going on this trip; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mild-mannered mailman; Krakauer, on assignment from Outside magazine. None of these three men have any experience in the “Death Zone” above 8,000 meters, nor does the team from South Africa, the IMAX documentarians, or many of the other clients. The more experienced climbers include the unsung native Sherpas, a Japanese woman (Naoko Mori) looking to reach the seventh of the “Seven Summits,” and Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), a legendary Russian mountaineer and guide who, to the consternation of the others, does it all without supplemental oxygen. Everyone fears and respects the mountain, but Boukreev seems to most of all.*
*It’s Boukreev’s book The Climb, written as a response to Krakauer’s account (which was unfairly critical of the guide), that served as my introduction to this story when I was in 7th grade. The film doesn’t disappoint in presenting an even-handed, practical view of events.
The cast, stocked with even more ringers like Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, and Robin Wright (the latter two spending the film worrying from home), is uniformly outstanding. With an ensemble this size, there’s not a lot of time to spend getting to know everyone in depth, but each actor imbues their role with humanity and understanding anyway. There are no “villains,” and no one really to blame for what happens. Clarke, as the Kiwi Hall and closest to a central character, is particularly good. Hall is a charismatic and knowledgable leader, but it’s his genuine care for his team that provides some of the film’s strongest moments.
The Icelandic Kormákur, who was previously only known for shoot-em-ups like Contraband and 2 Guns, is smart enough to get out of the way of his story (as written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) and focus on telling it as realistically as possible. And with only one or two exceptions where a greenscreen or soundstage are suspected, Everest‘s level of craft is absolutely astonishing. Kormákur took his A-list cast into the mountains of Nepal (later, the Alps), blowing real wind and snow onto their faces, and the visuals envelope the viewer so completely it starts to feel like a documentary; cinematographer Salvatore Totino gifts us with some truly awe-inspiring visuals that could have only come on location. Even when the characters’ faces are obscured by goggles, masks, or ice, Kormákur’s smart use of screen direction and color keeps us in the moment and engaged.
When so many are foolish enough to challenge it, Mt. Everest doesn’t hesitate to flick climbers off its face like flies, or drive them to madness. As one character puts it later, they “might as well be on the moon” for all the help they’ll receive if something goes horribly wrong. When the climbers pass the point of no return, with no choices except to succumb to the elements or wait out a long, blisteringly cold night, the film turns from a more straightfoward adventure to a slow march towards tragedy. (To be fair, even in the early going it’s hardly the “thriller” the marketing promised. This is a human-scale drama, through and through.)
It’s the strength of the direction that puts us firmly in the climbers’ place, and the strength of the performances that we come to care about whether they make it home. When someone makes a fatal decision, you know it the moment it happens, because it seems like they do, too. These scenes of quiet devastation stick with me more than the “hero” shots from the summit, or the tense but ultimately meaningless scenes on rickety ladder bridges. Kormákur doesn’t weigh the film down with extra stunts or drama (Vertical Limit, this isn’t), and only indulges in one awkward dream sequence; the real story, and the real mountain, are dramatic enough.
That brings me back to the first question: Why? After two hours, we’re not much closer to knowing the answer. Everest does for mountains what Jaws did for the ocean or what Gravity did for space, depicting an inhospitable, pitiless place that is out to kill us in a thousand different ways. Maybe the “why” is all about the reward in defying those odds; it’s not about the adrenaline rush in the moment, but the lifelong satisfaction afterwards. “Because it’s there” can be both a joke answer and also the most true. Maybe Reinhold Messner, the first to climb Everest without compressed oxygen, said it best when asked why he went up there to die: “No, I went up there to live.”