The last word always belongs to the mountain.
Everest tells the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, in which an expedition to the mountain’s summit was devastated by a blizzard. We follow the exploits of Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and his team, how they prepare, climb, and survive. The first half of the movie is introductions and groundwork; the literal calm before the storm. It feels light, and it’s only when the storm hits that things kick into gear. This initial portion is well-utilized at least, as the time is spent getting an idea of who these people are so we’ll understand who’s who and why it matters later on. It’s necessary, since the central cast is large, but it’s only John Hawkes’ arc that keeps it interesting. I’m used to Hawkes playing brittle, harsh characters in films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone, so it was strange to see him play a character that’s so reticent and anaemic. He’s fantastic, and embodies this in his sheepish grin and deflated posture, while the movie tries to keep up.
We are repeatedly told that the journey is dangerous, that around eight people die there each year; that the mountain always wins. Yet this isn’t felt at first. It’s not until the second half that the mountain and its weather comes across as particularly intimidating, immediately dismantling the expedition with no teary goodbyes or overwrought drama. We see the rapid decay of the group and each individual body once the storm arrives, and the overriding tone is not one of heroism, but a sense of futility. Regardless of why each climber seeks to reach the summit, the mountain itself is uncaring as well as mighty . The deaths aren’t glorious but sudden and feeble, downplayed to the point that the living don’t even notice. This fragility is juxtaposed with the raw power of nature, something that is mostly accomplished through astounding sound design. After we become acclimatized to the sound of the harsh, cold winds, a sharp cut from this suffering to the silence of Rob’s wife (Keira Knightley) home alone is striking.
While the structure is familiar, Everest avoids playing into worn-out tropes usually found in these group dynamics. Jason Clarke deserves top-billing, as he is the focus of the story and continues to bring the same quiet humanity he displayed in understated roles in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Zero Dark Thirty. Secondary characters like Josh Brolin and Michael Kelly aren’t forgotten, and are given their own particular moments to shine. However, these scenes are fleeting, and whether they serve any emotional or thematic through-line is unclear. Surprising to me was how little Jake Gyllenhaal had to do. His absence is felt in certain scenes, and yet when he does appear he isn’t given much to work with.
The most poignant points come from those monitoring the situation at the base camp, concentrated around the incredible Emily Watson. One particular conversation between Watson and Knightley (who is another stand-out) is heart-breaking, and another reason why these scenes of long-distance communication work as the emotional centre of the film. What I didn’t anticipate is that Sam Worthington* was kept in this camp, having to actually emote rather than staring blankly at green screens. As a matter of fact, he gives the best performance of his career, which isn’t exactly praise, but he’s pretty okay!
What may surprise some viewers is that it doesn’t revel in expansive shots of the landscape, it’s far more concerned with getting close to the characters and their ordeal. This helps with the 3D, which is at its best when it’s layering rocks and ice around the team. It’s integrated well, and didn’t give me a headache like Prometheus’ 3D did, but it often takes away from the spectacle. Grand moments are often rendered inert by its inclusion, and the artificiality of the more CG-enhanced shots are highlighted.
Ultimately, despite interesting performances and the tension maintained throughout, there’s something missing. It’s smart but doesn’t say anything interesting; it’s good-looking but never beautiful. Everest is notable for a select few performances, but the film itself is . . . functional. It’s difficult to say that without it sounding like a back-handed compliment, but it’s true. The whole may be less than the sum of its parts, with flickers of artistry failing to unite into anything substantial. It achieves all that it intends to, but a more ambitious, daring film lingers around its edges, and it’s hard not to be disappointed we didn’t get to see it.
*I was convinced he was Jai Courtney for the entire runtime, and only realised my mistake during the credits