It’s interesting that while author Jon Krakauer is portrayed in the new true-life thriller, “Everest,” his popular book, Into Thin Air, is not credited as the source material for the screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy. The reason for that could be that while the 1996 Everest disaster Krakauer chronicled in his book is the subject of the film, other books have come out about the event with different perspectives on the tragedy that happened in May 1996 on the Earth’s highest peak. It’s probably for the best, because Krakauer has not been kind to the film since it went into release.
My views on Baltasar Kormákur’s “Everest,” a dramatization of the weeks and days leading up to a tragedy that led to eight climbers dying on the mountain after a brutal storm hit the summit, are a bit skewed, as well, though certainly not for the same reasons Krakauer’s are. In 1998, MacGillivray Freeman Films released an IMAX documentary about the same events, but told from the vantage point of a group of climbers who were observers to the tragedy from a far; though they interacted with the people we see in “Everest,” their climb is separate, but became connected when the tragedy struck- one of the climbers for the documentary team was friends with Rob Hall, the guide for one of the teams we see in “Everest,” and hearing his personal recollections in the documentary is haunting. The IMAX documentary was one of the biggest hits in the IMAX format before Hollywood started co-opting the format, and the images of a camera operator walking across a ladder through the Ice Walk, and seeing the climbers go for the summit while it’s still dark, were unforgettable. It was a genuine event that still gave weight and gravitas to the loss of life that occurred. While it’s certainly understandable why narrative filmmakers would feel the need to tell this story, did it really need to be told again, this time from a Hollywood perspective? I’m not so sure.
The film starts off by seeing the convergence of the main people whose stories would forever be intertwined in the devastation of what happened on Everest on May 10, 1996: Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a New Zealand climber and guide leading one of the expeditions, whose wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), is seven months pregnant; Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), another one of the guides, and a friend/rival of Rob’s; Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a family man and climber; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a teacher and friend of Rob’s who is trying to reach the summit of Everest for the third time; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), whom is trying to scale the seven tallest peaks in the world, and has only Everest to tackle; and Helen (Emily Watson), Rob’s business partner, who stays at base camp charting progress. We see them converse and have fun at base camp; try to figure out how to work together with the other teams attempting to climb Everest at the same time (4 teams, and about 30 climbers in all), all trying to hit the same day to reach the summit; and Rob and Helen look at things from their business perspective- they offer an experience only the most expert climbers should be seeking, but not everyone in their group is so experienced. That poses considerable problems, but not nearly as many as when, on May 10, a number of climbers (some of whom have reached the summit, some of whom haven’t) get stranded on the face of Everest, many with a lack of oxygen tanks, when an ice storm hits. One of those is Rob, who is near the summit with Doug, but also stranded is Scott, Yasuko and Beck. Helen and others at base camp can only pray for the best when conditions make rescue impossible.
This is a riveting survival story, and it should be a profoundly powerful movie to watch, and several times, it is, such as when Rob, who is stranded at the summit, and Jan (whom Helen has ingeniously patched through) talk and come up with a name for their unborn daughter, or Beck’s wife (Robin Wright), upon finding out that Beck survived the night after all, scrambles to get a helicopter up to him after frostbite makes him walking down to base camp impossible. And Doug’s arc, as a man who simply wants to do this great thing, and is inspired by his students to try and do it, is one of the most moving of the year, played by Hawkes with a humility and sense of purpose that catches at the heartstrings when he not only accomplishes it, but also meets his fate on the mountain. What really holds the films back for me, though, is the focus on the business end of this climb between Rob, Scott and the other teams that makes up a good part of the first half of the film. It’s not really a surprising focus, as it’s been believed that it was the sheer amount of people, several of whom were not terribly experienced, lead to the major loss of life on Everest that day, but isn’t it dramatic enough to show the events on the mountain and leaving the tensions beforehand alone? I suppose it’s important to tell the whole story, but after a 45-minute documentary set the scene in less than half the time, such drama feels manufactured and unnecessary.
The IMAX documentary also casts a shadow on the moments of us watching the individuals on the mountain itself. Yes, Kormákur (“2 Guns,” “Contraband”) does a great job re-creating the climbers battling the elements, and their own fears, on Everest, but there’s not one moment that felt genuinely life-threatening because I knew that we were just watching actors in relatively controlled environments. Yes, there were emotional moments, but nothing that really brought a sense of tension to the film. The fact that the makers of the documentary accomplished what they did in giving us a first-person look at the climb, risked death themselves, and survived, while also paying tribute to those who lost their lives, and shared that experience with the world, without needing to recreate anything, makes “Everest” feel like an afterthought, which it shouldn’t be.