See ’70s disaster-movie throwback Everest in the theater or not at all

December 9, 2015

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from Indy Week

There are movies you want to see on the big screen if you’re going to see them at all. Big spectacle movies just don’t scale down that well to the screens and speakers of your living-room TV, computer screen or—god help us—mobile device.

Everest is just that kind of movie. Based on a true story, it’s an old-fashioned disaster drama with cutting-edge visual design. There are sights and sounds that will make your heart race and your stomach drop. Filmed in IMAX 3D, it’s built from the ground up to be experienced on a really big screen with really big sound.

The story is based on the 1996 tragedy in which eight climbers died attempting to summit the planet’s highest mountain. It’s the same story that was told in writer Jon Krakauer’s gripping book, Into Thin Air, although it’s not technically based on that book. Krakauer is a character here, not a screenwriter.

Jason Clarke takes the lead as Rob Hall, the New Zealand mountaineer who pioneered the idea of commercial Everest expeditions with his company, Adventure Consultants. Hall led one of several teams up the mountain on the fateful day, while his pregnant wife—played by Keira Knightley—stayed home.

Josh Brolin plays one of Hall’s clients, a Texas doctor with Texas-sized chip on his shoulder. Jake Gyllenhaal is Scott Fischer, the leader of a rival expedition. Other featured roles, on and off the mountain, are played by Emily Watson, Robin Wright, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly and Elizabeth Debicki.

It’s a big cast, and Everest is structured like those 1970s disaster movies—The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure—in which multiple characters are introduced and the emotional stakes are established just before the trouble begins. It feels a bit hokey and transparent, but the biographical details are largely accurate.

Any concerns about mawkishness quickly fade as director Baltasar Kormákur commences to explode our eyeballs with grand compositions. Some of the best scenes are on the way to the mountain as cinematographer Salvatore Totino settles his gaze on the sprawling chaos of Katmandu or the grand serenity of a remote Buddhist monastery.

On the ascent, we learn a lot of interesting things about Everest expeditions circa 1996: The base camps are worryingly crowded. Litter and discarded oxygen canisters are everywhere. Crevasses are traversed by way of aluminum ladders, lashed together like some improbable Home Depot project at 30,000 feet.

Most disturbing is the revelation that, in this dangerous environment, no one is in charge. Competing outfitters jostle for space and wait at choke points on the ascent path. One slow team can logjam all the other climbers, endangering everyone. When there’s a six-hour window of opportunity to make the summit, you can’t afford to wait around on those surly amateurs from Sweden.

The last of the film’s two-and-a-half hours is relentless, as bad weather and bad decisions combine to create a lethal situation. The dizzying camera work peaks with a slow pan of a massive storm approaching the summit. It’s the money-shot equivalent of that giant rogue wave in The Perfect Storm.

Unfortunately, Everest lacks that movie’s solid characterizations and assured storytelling. Part of the problem is practical. With everyone wrapped in parkas, hoods and oxygen masks, it’s often difficult to even recognize the characters. Also, like the situation it depicts, the film is just too crowded. There are too many people to keep track of, too many threads to try to follow.

As a Hollywood endeavor, Everest is a throwback to classic Big Movie filmmaking. Big cast. Big stars. Big moments. Big music. Big mountain. It never quite makes the leap from the head to the heart, though. It’s dazzling but ultimately disposable, and not the kind of thing that’s likely to play well on a 27-inch TV.

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