Into the steaming morass of awful September movies comes Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, only the latest movie to convince me that, really, there’s nothing too awful about staying inside all day, is there? Based on the same event that inspired John Krakauer’s best-selling book Into Thin Air–in fact, Krakauer is one of the characters, played by House of Cards‘ Michael Kelly–it tells the story of a disastrous 1996 Everest climb, which saw an expedition led by experienced climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) get caught in an unexpected storm.
It’s not exactly a stretch to say that Everest is Clarke’s best movie of the year, considering his other 2015 releases were the stinkers Child 44 and Terminator Genisys. Likewise, Everest provides a career respite for Sam Worthington, playing one member of a very large supporting cast. But “better than Terminator Genisys and Clash of the Titans” is particularly faint praise, so let me say: Everest is actually pretty damn good.
Admittedly, William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s script suffers in the first half from having to set up a mountain’s worth of information. There are a ton of characters here, and all of them need their small chunk of character exposition so that by the time the disaster portion of this disaster movie starts we A) care about them and B) have some relatively decent chance of telling them apart from the other characters dressed as walking North Face ads. There’s John Hawkes as Doug Hansen, a mailman who’s tried unsuccessfully to climb Everest once before and wants to prove to his kids that anything is possible. There’s Josh Brolin as the stubborn Texan who uses mountain climbing as a way to detox from the pressures of his white picket fence life, which includes a strained marriage to wife Peach (Robin Wright). There’s mother hen Emily Watson as Hall’s director of operations and Keira Knightley as the pregnant wife he promises to come back to. Jake Gyllenhaal pops up as one of Hall’s more hippie-ish counterparts. Clive Standen from Vikings is there, which I didn’t realize until I saw his name in the credits. Guess I’m just not used to him without the beard.
Further, Nicholson and Beaufoy had the challenge of sufficiently explaining mountain climbing to a viewing public that probably doesn’t know all that much about it. It’s not just climbing a mountain: There’s strategy and internal politics and, above all, danger. The first half of the movie actually dragged a bit, for me, because there was so much “Guys. You know this is really dangerous, right? Like, so dangerous. There are so many ways that we could all die at any time. We still good, though? Guys? Guys, seriously, human bodies are not built for this. It is incredibly likely that we will all die on this mountain. What the fuck are we even doing?”
“I get it, I get it,” you think. “Climbing a mountain is real fucking dangerous.” (Even though, I should note, the movie does a good job of establishing why people do this.) But then all that set-up, which seemed so extraneous at the time, pays off in the third act. Now that everything’s been established, the script can step back and let the tragedy unfold, as it were. I didn’t realize how much it was getting to me until the credits rolled and I had to make myself physically unclench. Wondering who was going to die, and how, was horrifying. It’s like Mother Nature made a snuff film. Everest is a very by-the-books disaster movie that hits all the beats you expect it to, but it hits them in a very skillful way. Kormákur really knows how to escalate tension in a visual medium. I saw Everest in IMAX 3D, and I would recommend that format, as it maximizes the immersive OH HOLY GOD NO factor. (And there are no cheesy “Whups, the snow is coming right towards your face!” moments that I can recall.) That is, unless you’re prone to a fear of heights or panic attacks. Maybe not then.