A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is in essence a disaster flick that looks pretty, makes most people never want to go mountaineering at a height above the hill in their backyard, and that’s basically it. Built around the tragedy of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, Everest fulfills the traditional hallmarks of an ensuing natural tragedy as if a checklist and in doing so digs itself into a deeper hole than the ones bearing the burden of rickety ladders going across them to the other side of an icy slope. While the shots may be thrilling, or the sheer technical wizardry that transforms Icelandic landscapes into a convincing depiction of the Himalayas, the rest of the film falls flat. It’s the conventional nature of it all that makes it feel like a simple, understated effort in the vein of San Andreas or basically anything that has the words “Roland Emmerich” attached to it. Certainly the plot is in a hurry to get to Nepal, unintentionally crafting a fairly shaky foundation that serves to befuddle the audience more than anything else. The audience is privy to the characters for about five seconds each before the movie takes off, hoping that that slim amount of time would make you care when they’re ensnared within the icy fangs of the the Himalayas. Yet the movie can’t muster that emotional construct that well, either. The characters are nearly all tropes, drawn as thinly as the layer of oxygen in the Death Zone. For the few characters who are lucky enough to garner a decent amount of attention, the film does manage to feel like the grand tragedy it’s trying so hard to be.
There are, out of this massive ensemble, has two characters who work. In the circumstances where the relationship between Rob Hall (a surprisingly gripping Jason Clarke) and Helen Wilton (a fantastic Emily Watson) is the focus of the script, the story feels germane, lived in. The expedition suddenly takes on a serious dramatic note that otherwise never arises. There’s no semblance of romance or anything even close to it, but Hall and Wilton have a professional relationship and personal friendship that evokes the most germane sympathy. When the tragedy on Everest is striking, no one’s reactions prove to be as effecting as Wilton’s, who hopes against all odds that her partner of so many years makes it back to base camp. The same can’t be said for anyone else. If one simply looked at the actor roster on the poster, it’s a damn impressive lineup. A cast that includes Clark, Watson, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michael Kelly raises one’s expectations without significant effort and rightfully so. They’re almost all uniformly wasted, tossed to the wind for the vultures to carry off because the movie simply had no idea what to do with them at all.
In some aspects, there’s simply too many people for the movie to give everyone the right amount of time. But in that case one can manage to rework the script so that it doesn’t feel like instead of a tree growing upright, it’s simply branching out in every single direction possible. Jake Gyllenhaal, for example, is a key example of how utterly Everest buckles and collapses under its own pressure when it’s not making you jump out of your seat because the macho guy is about to fall into an icy abyss. Gyllenhaal plays cool guy Scott Fischer, a rival expedition leader to Hall who nevertheless has respect for his New Zealander peer and whose company apparently has been sponsored by Starbucks coffee mugs. Fischer is apparently not in top shape, which ought to be concerning considering the trip he’s undertaken, but if anyone in the audience manages to remotely care when he’s coughing on screen to prove that he’s sick, kudos to you. Fischer remains a complete cipher, as if befuddled and lost like a GPS that keeps on telling you to take a right on one-way streets that only go left. He just glosses in and out of the screen at random junctures as if to serve the audience a reminder that he exists. Yet the movie never gives you a single reason to care if he is indeed germane or an ephemeral mirage in the mountains. Nor does Fischer have an actual impact on the plot outside of his crew trying to get all of their climbers to make it to the summit. It’s as if the production was under the impression that the audience will care because they know who Jake Gyllenhaal is. Perhaps this is a news flash, but that isn’t effective storytelling.
What this oddly assembled movie is, most of all, thrilling in all the visual spaces one expects it to be. The compilation of visuals from Iceland, Nepal, and Italy are assembled together perfectly, to where only people who are well-acquainted with the typography and geography of the Himalayas would be able to discern the creative liberties taken by the production team. The scope of the camera is stunning, sweeping through the mountainous mist to give an urgent sense of immediacy to the true challenges all the climbers faced. The moments meant to induce fear, as is inherent to all disaster flicks, are executed with impressive efficiency, including the aforementioned ladder sequence. Kormákur has a real gift as a director in framing those moments with a keen sense of terror, gripping you in spite of yourself. When movies use coincidences of danger to construct a narrative sequence, it can often feel cheap, like the 3-D used here. But having the benefit of unstable weather as a logical trick up its sleeve, the film utilizes the sudden onsets of storms and winds brilliantly. The wrath of the frigid ice is formidable in its sheer fortitude, striking into the fleshes of the climbers without mercy. The same cannot be said for the movie as a whole, whose plentitude of entertainment couldn’t bury the thin ice upon which it wobbles.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
-Keira Knightley and Robin Wright are formidable actresses and they do what they can with the material provided (which is, all things considered, quite a lot). But their roles never rise above “concerned wife”.
-The actual histories of the individual members trying to climb Mt. Everest are extremely enlightening on their own, but they really get completely lost in the shuffle here. Some extra research on the part of the viewer can be illuminating when the movie fails to do so.
-A key component of the 1996 disaster was the aspect of competition, which drove teams to focus on the competition and not the safety/healths of the climbers themselves. The controversy around Jon Krakauer, the journalist responsible for documenting the competition for the magazine which offered the prize in the first place, is well worth looking into. The movie really doesn’t go into it.
-The Hindi song played when the team reaches Nepal is “Yeh Ladka Hai Allah” appeared famously twice in Indian cinema. It first appeared in the 1977 film Yaadon Ki Baaraat from the amazing Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle and then the 2001 blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, then sung by Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan. By logic, the movie takes place in 1996 so it ought to have used the 1977 version, but they went ahead and used the 2001 version. It’s a really small detail that annoys the hell out of me, mostly because this is a major Hollywood production and this just strikes me as incredibly lazy. As it is, nearly all Indian films are musicals in some fashion and finding a song from 1996 was about two or three Wikipedia clicks’ worth of effort. Both versions are included below for your auditory pleasure.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormákur, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Tyler Thompson, Brian Oliver
Written by: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Kelly
Music by: Dario Marianelli
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino
Edited by: Mick Audsley
Production Company: Cross Creek Pictures, Walden Media, Working Title Films, RVK Studios, Free State Pictures
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Dates: September 18, 2015 (United Kingdom), September 25, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Wallpapers Byte