The late-September release date of “Everest” places it right in the sweet spot between summer movie spectacle and awards-season prestige.
By Noah Gittell
The late-September release date of “Everest” places it right in the sweet spot between summer movie spectacle and awards-season prestige. It attempts to occupy the same space in our imagination as 2013’s “Gravity,” another disaster movie that premiered in early fall and went on to capture a slew of Oscars. But “Everest” is missing an enormous piece of what made “Gravity” worthy of commendation. It fails to make its characters likeable, sympathetic, or even well-rounded enough to be believable. Meanwhile, it lacks the emotional depth that could have turned it into an awards’ darling.
The biggest problem is the lack of characterization, as our heroes are identified in the broadest of strokes. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, allowed to use his natural Australian accent for once) runs a company that takes tourists to the summit. He has a tearful goodbye with his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) at the airport – so we know he’s in trouble. Among his clients on this particular trip are Doug (John Hawkes), a mild-mannered postal worker; Beck (Josh Brolin), a rambunctious Texan with a wife and two kids at home; and Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), an author who we know will survive because he went on to write a best-selling account of the trip, “Into Thin Air.”
There are a few other characters lurking on the perimeter of the story. Jake Gyllenhall plays a lone wolf climber — a frat guy-type now seeking bigger thrills than beer pong — who teams up with Rob and his crew. Then there’s Yasuko (Naoko Mori), a Chinese female climber who has already reached six of seven Everest summits and is on her final expedition. Perhaps because of the actors involved, these side characters seem far more interesting than our heroes. It’s a pity that director Baltasar Kormákur doesn’t know what to do with them. They get shuffled off to the side; the film would have been better off focusing more on them or leaving them out altogether.
You’ll quickly notice that, with the exception of Yasuko, the protagonists of “Everest” are a homogenous bunch. They are all white, male, and middle-class. But if we only notice their most obvious distinguishing features, it’s because the script never bothers to tell us who they actually are. There is an early scene in which Krakauer asks each of the climbers what motivates them. The film tellingly never allows them a real answer. Instead, they quote Edmund Hillary (the first person to climb Everest) and answer, “Because it’s there.” This scene may come straight from Krakauer’s book, but it’s a serious narrative problem. Ultimately, “Everest” misfires because it adopts and never questions Hillary’s philosophy. Instead of offering introspection or socio-cultural context, it simply shows us something that happened and hopes we’ll be interested.
It’s a classic example of a fact-based film being too beholden to its subject and failing to realize a directorial point-of-view. Why are we seeing these events? What do they mean to us?
Why should we care about these people? Although the power of nature is deeply felt in “Everest” (with more than a little CGI help), your engagement with the film will depend greatly on your pre-conceived notions of heroism. How do you label these protagonists, some of whom died for a reason even they can’t quite place? Some will call them heroes, others fools. As a result, you might see “Everest” as a tragedy, or you might find yourself balking at a film that asks you to care about characters who refuse to care about themselves.
As for me, I found myself fixated on a character who gets precious little screen time: the Sherpa. A little research taught me that, in the small mountain towns of Nepal, being a Sherpa is just about the only paying job (just about: in the film, he’s played by an actual Sherpa). They routinely die or get injured on these expeditions, leaving their families in terrible emotional and economic predicaments. In other words, they face the same situation that the protagonist of “Everest” – Rob Hall – faces in the film, except they are doing it for a cause that actually matters: their own survival. I know critics are supposed to judge a film for what it is, not what we want it to be, but a movie about the Sherpa – or at least a little more attention to the characters who are not white, male, and boring – would be a better one than this.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether