I'm going to try not to have too many spoilers in this review. But I will be referring to the true story here and there, so I'll probably end up giving a few things away.
After watching the trailer for the new film Everest and seeing the tagline "NEVER LET GO," you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is just another one of those rousing man-conquers-nature, triumphs-over-adversity movies like Alive or Apollo 13.
But if you have even a passing recollection of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster upon which this story is based, you'll know enough to suspect that's not going to be the case. Man didn't conquer shit in 1996, and there wasn't a lot of triumph to go around — unless you count losing only your nose and both of your hands to frostbite as a triumph.
I've read Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's first-person account of the disaster, a couple times, and it's one of the most harrowing non-fiction books I've ever encountered. Everest isn't based on his book (in fact, Krakauer is pretty pissed about how he was portrayed), but from what I remember of the story it seems to be a pretty accurate retelling, even if a lot of the edges have been smoothed over and spackled under a layer of Hollywood gloss.
But even with its faults, it's a pretty riveting film.
Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall, an Everest guide from New Zealand whose company Adventure Consultants was one of several expeditions stranded on the south face of the mountain during a blistering storm on the night of May 10, 1996. Hall's friendly rival was Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal, oddly underused here), whose Mountain Madness team was also caught in the "Death Zone" (a third expedition, comprised of a group of Tibetan police officers, was trapped on the north face and isn't mentioned in the film). A few of the people in Hall's group were Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Seattle mail man Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), and Japanese businesswoman Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori).
And, of course, there was journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly), whose employer, Outside magazine, had been paid by Hall to document the excursion and (hopefully) bring some good press to his company. It didn't really work out that way.
Everest, for its first half, is a pretty able if not terribly impressive adventure film. There are some good performances. Clarke is the standout, but Hawkes and Emily Watson (as Adventure Consultants base camp manager Helen Wilton) are also quite good. Gyllenhaal is fine, but he doesn't have a lot to do. I expected there to be more focus on Kelly, but maybe that's because I'm mostly familiar with Krakauer's account. He's also underused, but has a few nice moments here and there.
Director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, 2 Guns) doesn't overload us too early with the sort of majestic/terrifying vista shots we saw jammed into the trailer. The focus is (rightly) on the characters, which would be great except none of them are terribly interesting. Hall — a professional mountaineer profiting (perhaps against his better judgment) off a bunch of rich wannabes — is the most developed. Clarke paints a portrait of a decent, well-meaning guy who's so able at what he does that maybe it doesn't occur to him he might screw up.
For about an hour, we do get some nice (if a bit clichéd) triumph-over-adversity stuff, and we get a few little glimpses into the family lives of Hall and Weathers (Brolin is ostensibly the second lead, but frankly I can't say he brought a whole lot to the table here). The trek up the mountain certainly feels triumphant, but we get a few little shadings of what's to come: logjams on the way up, an uneasy partnership between Hall and Fischer (whose Sherpas inexplicably seem to hate each other), rumblings about bad weather on the way.
Things go sideways as the groups reach the top, and Hall — wanting to see his buddy Hansen, who tried and failed to summit the year before, succeed — makes an understandable but tragic mistake.
It's in the second half that the film really comes alive (sorry about the unintended mordent irony there). When disaster strikes, Kormákur throws us right into it. It's stunning (and likely pretty true to life) how quickly things fall apart when there's literally no margin of error for survival. A few minor mistakes and miscommunications early on lead to an alarming descent into chaos. The film necessarily skips over some details (if you want more, read Krakauer's book), but it captures the sudden and inexorable sense of doom as the situation goes rapidly from problematic to absolutely dire.
Kormákur also heaps in a few heavy shovelfuls of rank emotional manipulation, but I don't fault him for it. He's got a highly developed, almost Spielbergian sense of how to play an audience's fear and empathy for maximum effect. And Clarke quietly delivers a performance of such crushing tragic weight that you don't notice the incredible feat of it until the movie is over. The final shot of the movie will haunt me for awhile.
Everest isn't a great movie. It doesn't quite reconcile the disparate tones of its first and second halves, and too many of the characters are underdeveloped (likely unavoidable with the size of this cast). But overall it's a damn effective one, and worth seeing while it's in theaters.
I didn't see it in 3D, and for that I'm glad. I'm not sure I could have hung with it when shit gets dark.