Ain’t no mountain high enough, Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest climbs the nuts and bolts of the fight to the summit without descending into human conflict.
Holy Mountainby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After The Deep, his tale of one man’s survival in the frozen waters of Iceland, Baltasar Kormákur returns bigger and better, daring to take on in 3D the world’s highest mountain and the fatal expedition in 1996 of amateur mountaineers that left four people dead. It’s based largely on one survivor’s account – Beck Weathers’ Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, but the disaster was also attended by Jon Krakauer, a journalist on the brink of fame with Into The Wild published that same year, and who then published his own account of the disaster Into Thin Air. Already the subject of another film, it’s perhaps the best documented expedition up Everest, but here Kormákur reveals the disparate developments at play as he unveils man’s desire to conquer Earth’s greatest challenge.
Leaving behind his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley), New Zealand mountaineer and owner of Adventure Consultants, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) heads off to Nepal for six weeks to lead, along with two other guides and base camp support Helen (Emily Watson), eight paying customers, including Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) up Everest. Alongside many other crews, including easy-roller Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his team, they carry out several practice expeditions, up as far as Base Camp 4, allowing the mountaineers to acclimatise and navigate their way across glaciers, ice fields and rickety crevasse-breaching ladders. Until finally on 10th May 1996, when the weather is at its most promising, they summit. And nearly all of them. The only problem is getting down.
In glorious 3D, we summit Everest, soaring over mountain passes, prayer-flag-fluttering bridges and above its lofty peaks, but rather than the death-defying traverses or the vertigo-inducing peaks, it’s the human aspect Baltasar Kormákur attempts to focus on, as he documents the desires and dynamics of the group. It might be man versus the mountain, climbing through the death zone to the summit – where the body starved of oxygen is literally dying – but as we learn that this is Doug’s second attempt, or of Hall’s wife Jan or Beck Weathers’ wife Peach (Robin Wright) and her attempts to bring a severely frostbitten, hypothermic husband down off the mountain in a helicopter, we’re offered a glimpse into the lives of the ordinary people attempting something extraordinary.
The problem is, we never really understand why. And despite Krakauer’s attempts to uncover the motivation behind the mountaineers’ desire to risk life and limb in ascending Everest, there’s no tangible reason beyond Doug’s desire to show that a nobody can become a somebody. Somebody who’s climbed Everest. And as a peculiarly male kind of bravado, it’s a shame Seven Summiteer and the only female of the group Yasuko isn’t granted much of a personality, identity or backstory to enlighten us. But despite Doug’s catastrophic desire to get to the top and Hall’s sympathetic zeal for making dreams come true, Everest offers no real explanation for the tragedy beyond a laissez-faire, one-of-those-things kind of resignation and some vague murmurings about there being too many novices on the mountain.
Despite its immaculate-looking 3D, Everest doesn’t really capture the essence of man’s desire to push himself to the extreme or the identity crisis that causes ordinary men to want to see themselves as somebody. And while it moves along at a good lick and affords its climbers a moment of glory at the summit, Salvatore Totino’s cinematography doesn’t evoke the wonder or sublime beauty of the ice fields of Noel’s 1924 The Epic Of Everest – even if his transformation of the Italian Alps into the Himalayas is quite astonishing. It’s taut, gripping and well organised, but ultimately, Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is a cautious expedition in a safe pair of hands.
Everest is released on 18th September 2015 in the UK
I applaud Working Title for breaking new ground and not sticking to the ‘Into Thin Air’ version of the 1996 Everest tragedy, which is maybe why this book is not in this film’s Credits, something that has not gone unnoticed by some professional reviewers.
Working Title/the Director referred to Jon Krakauer as ‘a writer who just happened to be on the mountain at the time’. To learn more about what actually caused this seminal event you will need to read ‘A Day to Die For’ and ‘After the Wind’. Well done Working Title and Baltasar Kormakur for daring to break the mold!?