“Everest” is a frustrating example of spectacle overtaking substance. Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, from a script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, “Everest” has outstanding visuals and sound design but is undone by a convoluted, emotionally stilted script that doesn't do its amazing (and tragic) source material justice.
Kormakur’s film is based on the true story of the nineteen ninety-six Mount Everest expedition (consisting of three teams) that ended in disaster. Twelve people tragically lost their lives when a massive blizzard trapped the teams as they attempted to reach the mountain’s summit and return to camp. The event remains one of the most devastating mountain expeditions in history and spawned numerous nonfiction books (most notably Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”) and documentaries.
It’s a truly remarkable story. Unfortunately this dramatized version doesn’t quite live up to that same level of remarkability. The situation is still tragic but as a standalone narrative, “Everest” is unconvincing.
Like a lot of biographical movies “Everest” has too much going on without anything making a substantial impression; too many characters and not enough movie (even at two hours) to allow any of them to develop into three-dimensional human beings that we can care about. Simply put, the emotional core is missing and the picture’s attempts to juggle its twelve plus characters causes things to get convoluted and unfocused.
“Everest” gets especially convoluted when the blizzard hits. The film frantically jumps back and forth between the various basecamps and groups of stranded climbers dispersed around the mountain. The action in this section loses its sense of continuity and the film becomes messy and disorienting. We lose track of what’s going on as well as where the characters are in relation to one other and the mountain. Characters suddenly go missing for extended periods of time. The scene where Texas Pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) miraculously stands up and treks back to camp after spending all night in the snow should be poignant except that he’s been absent and unaccounted for in the previous ten minutes.
Worst of all, when climbers begin to freeze to death in the blinding white fury we don’t feel anything because they’re so thinly drawn to begin with. An image of a dead climber encrusted in a shell of snow is always going to be striking on some level but in a fictional film it’s an empty image if you don’t care who the climber is.
What the filmmakers needed to do was condense. Instead of sloppily cramming all three large expedition groups into one movie, perhaps it could have focused on one small group. This would make for a more intimate movie space, allowing for better character development and better filmic coherence. That way, when the blizzard strikes, the group’s fight for survival would pack more of an emotional punch and the film wouldn’t have to skip around so much. By trying to focus on everyone, the movie mostly squanders any chance for emotional resonance.
“Everest” is pretty to look at though; Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino make great use of the big screen format--the camera hovers up and over the titanic mountain, tracking the climbers like a curious bird. The sound design is also tremendous. Between the blaring, piercing ferocious wind and the panting and coughing from the climbers as their bodies attempt to acclimatize to the mountain air, it can overwhelming. When the blizzard first hits there’s a shot showing four or five climbers huddled together near a ledge. Suddenly, a gust of mighty wind blows up and over the edge, a gust of wind that practically shook the whole IMAX auditorium where I was seeing the movie. It also caused me to abruptly sit back in my chair, like I was trying to get out of the wind’s path.
However, visual and aural pleasure can only take a movie so far and that moment eventually wore off. Ultimately I left “Everest” feeling sad about the real life incident but unmoved by the film itself. It clearly wanted to move me, with its grand sweeping shots of the mountain and Dario Marianelli’s thundering instrumental score. But the thinness of the characters and the convolutedness of the plot left me feeling cold. I haven’t even talked about the cast, which is loaded with talented individuals (Jason Clarke, Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, among others) because there’s no need to. The script doesn’t allow any of them to stand out.