We’d been led to believe that summer was over. That the window for white-knuckle action-adventure movies had closed for the season and we could go back to contemplating more refined fare. But sneaking in right after the Labor Day deadline is Everest—a relentless 3-D workout where something is truly at stake: the lives and deaths of real people. It’s been almost two decades since the 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest, when eight climbers died trying to return from its summit. That story was indelibly recounted by one of the expedition’s survivors, Jon Krakauer (played here by Michael Kelly), in his best-seller Into Thin Air. Krakauer’s book was harrowing, cautionary, and heartbreaking as it painted what it was like to fight for survival at 29,000 feet. It was also full of the kind of human complexity and rich technical detail that no two-hour movie could reasonably match.
Jason Clarke, the ruggedly sensitive Australian star of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, heads up the film’s large cast as Rob Hall—the Kiwi mountaineer who ran a climbing outfit called Adventure Consultants, which essentially made a business out of lugging weekend warriors with deep pockets up the tallest and deadliest peak on earth. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Hall’s rival guide Scott Fischer, a macho, laid-back American leading his own team up Everest in what would turn out to be a dangerously unpredictable and overcrowded season on the mountain. Kelly, John Hawkes, and a rootin’-tootin’ Josh Brolin are just some of the cargo, each with his own reason for wanting to reach the top that goes deeper than “Because it’s there”—especially Hall, who had a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) waiting at home.
It may sound cold to say that while all of the performances are solid, it’s the danger of Everest that’s the film’s primary lure. But no one pays IMAX ticket prices for nuanced human drama, and the film’s dizzying climbing scenes and vertiginous don’t-look-down moments are what give it its heart-quickening power. Shot in Nepal and Italy, Everest makes you feel how mismatched and exposed even the strongest climber must have felt when a blizzard kicked up during this group’s descent, leaving them stranded and doomed. Baltasar Kormákur, the director of the underappreciated 2 Guns, stages all of the high-altitude chaos effectively, if a bit too chaotically. At times it’s confusing (especially if you haven’t read Into Thin Air) who’s where and who’s still alive. They’re just a sea of parkas. Maybe that’s the point—that Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate. But I doubt it. Plus, it shouldn’t be. When the lights come up, you don’t want to feel like you’ve watched a better Cliffhanger. You want to understand the tragedy you’ve just watched. Yes, you want to be entertained, but you also want the icy, whipping wind of reality to sting. B–