This is what filmed spectacle used to look like — a trip to a place or time most of us could never see, high drama built on the fissures of human nature, where the menaces come from our flaws, our hubris and unforgiving nature itself.
The most special “special effect” of “Everest” is the gigantic mountain itself — so absurdly imposing it can seem digitally created, even in scenes where it’s not.
“Everest” is about that infamous 1996 climbing disaster on Mount Everest, when the burgeoning business of escorting well-heeled climbers to the most forbidding and previously exclusive mountaintop on Earth got its comeuppance, courtesy of Mother Nature.
Jason Clarke (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) is Rob Hall, the New Zealander who invented this “Nanny Mountaineering.” For a big fee, he and his team would give climbers with deep pockets a chance to cross the ultimate Adventure Vacation off their bucket list.
The people in his group weren’t novices. But the Rich Texan (Josh Brolin), the spend-it-all-on-this-trip mailman (John Hawkes), the Japanese woman collecting ascents to the Seven Highest Peaks on Earth (Naoko Mori) would need help, a LOT of help — oxygen tanks planted at points on the way, ladders hung and ropes strung by Sherpas, porters and professional mountaineers, guides to push and pull them and hold their hands.
Like Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cheery, swaggering competitor who liked his drink and had yet to find his limits of endurance. Scott was dragging his own paid entourage of vanity climbers to Everest, as were many others in that spring of 1996.
The script, by “Gladiator” vet William Nicholson and “Slumdog Millionaire” writer Simon Beaufoy, sets up the backstories — the pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) waiting for Rob to come home, the nonplussed Peaches (Robin Wright) at home in Texas with the kids as her money-makes-me-immortal husband, Beck (Brolin) indulges one last great adventure.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (“Contraband”) takes the screen time to let us absorb a little of exotic Nepal — crowded cities, ancient monasteries and breathtaking mountain vistas and high suspension bridges are just appetizers for the real treat — Everest itself.
And then the test itself, Everest, climbed methodically, scientifically, by teams that train for the thin air that client and magazine reporter Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) will immortalize in his book, “Into Thin Air.”
If there’s a weakness to the script, it’s the way everything is underlined as “foreshadowing.” Whoa, that Russian guide doesn’t believe in packing oxygen up there because no one who can’t handle the altitude should be there? Sherpas showing a competitive streak? Scott’s mania for pushing himself to absurd extremes? Rob’s “promise” and financial obligation to get this person or that one to the top? The traffic jams that the many competing teams/guides create on the mountain?
And for all that goes terribly wrong, all the superhuman efforts called for and the fury at others’ ineptitude, there’s no swearing. What, nobody cursed a blue streak at his bad luck or bad climbing mates?
The word the ancients built many a classic drama around — “hubris” — hangs over “Everest.” These weren’t bad people, or even careless ones. But to a one, they were shortsighted, arrogant and self-absorbed. Picking out the weak links in the chain, the ones who will fail when the chips are down and the winds are up, is totally absorbing.
The mystery — for those who don’t remember the large format science museum movie about this event, or Krakauer’s book — is who will survive, and who won’t?
Sam Worthington took a smaller role as a guide pitching in to manage the mess when it starts to unfold. Guy is one of many characters to use that fatalistic phrase — “Your call” — when leaving it to people to accept responsibility for their own fates.
Clarke gives Hall a nobility, but lets us see the gambles and compromises he feels, as a businessman, that he needs to make. Brolin gives a soft edge to Beck, a character who could easily have been pitched as a brash Texas caricature (lawyers be damned).
Knightley, Watson and Wright deliver pathos to a story that could easily take on the shrug of “Well, what did they think would happen, spending their money to knock on death’s door?”
But I particularly liked the way the Outside Magazine writer Krakauer comes off. He is more than the observer he was in the magazine and the best-selling book “Into Thin Air.” Here, he’s a catalyst — a willing or unwilling one. When base camp director Helen (Emily Watson) ponders the bad events leading up to the tragedy, she frets over appearances.
“What’s Jon Krakauer going to say about that” in Outside Magazine?
And when the chips were down, the seen-it/done-it-all rock star outdoor writer comes off as human, not heroic.
Which is perhaps the moral to this intimate, large-scale epic. There’s facing the end with dignity and grace and fatalism. But for most of us, that’s a reach. Especially when all we’re doing is risking our lives and others’ lives for bragging rights, the chance to say, “for the rest of your life, ‘He’s the guy who climbed Everest.'”
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for intense peril and disturbing images
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Robin Wright, John Hawke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Naoko Mori
Credits: Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy. A Universal release.
Running time: 2:01