Everest is a Heartstopping True Adventure Flick that Hollywood Didn't Even Have to Doctor

click to enlarge Jake Gylenhaal, Michael Kelly, and Josh Brolin - Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Jake Gylenhaal, Michael Kelly, and Josh Brolin
Everest opened Thursday night at theaters across the region, and this weekend you should make a point to see it on the biggest screen you can find. Other than Mad Max, it's the most visually arresting cinematic experience of the year. It's buttressed by solid performances from an ensemble cast and the all-natural thrills of the tallest mountain in the world.

It's rated PG-13 for "intense peril." Rest assured that there's plenty of it to go around.

Based on true events, Everest dramatizes the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, wherein eight people lost their lives on a single day. Parts of the tragedy were documented in the 1998 IMAX film, also called Everest, which became the highest-grossing IMAX film of all time. 

(Don't look up who lives and who dies before you go, though, because part of the sick pleasure of the film is trying to predict who will survive).

Your candidates:

—Pro climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, who's becoming one of Hollywood's go-to leading men), a stalwart climber who's only knock appears to be a sentimental streak. He's something of a "hand-holder" on the mountain. Hall pioneered the idea of Everest as a conquerable tourist destination and it's his Adventure Consultants team making the central ascent in the film.

—Texas doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a hobbyist climber who's nursing existential crises in private.

—Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman from Seattle with his heart set on the Everest summit after a failed ascent the previous year.

—Jon Krakauer (House of Cards' Michael Kelly), the Outside Magazine journalist, who's climbing Everest for a story about the mountain's commercialization, and whose later account of the disaster, Into Thin Air, became an international bestseller. (So I guess you know that he survives).

—American pro climber Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a bad-boy mountaineer who leads the rival company Mountain Madness, and who harbors a grudge against Hall for nabbing Krakauer, who was initially slated to make the ascent with Fischer, but jumped ship for a discount with Hall.

With a crowded ensemble, to say nothing of their often indistinguishable snow suits, it sometimes feels as if the film is a tad short on character development, but this is no great deficiency. The film's central dudes (and their wives back home, emotionally portrayed by Robin Wright and Keira Knightly) need only limited screen time to effectively communicate the horror of their uncertainty. 

The bulk of the film transpires on the mountain itself. And, as is mentioned early on, Everest always gets the last word. The mountain functions almost as a deity in the film, and its ascent is both self-flagellation and worship. But with too many pilgrims — '96 was a crowded year — the Mountain becomes exceedingly dangerous. 

Near the top of Everest, at the cruising altitude of a 747, the body is "literally dying," as Hall makes clear. There is limited oxygen; the lungs and the heart and the brain begin to bulge and swell; temperatures, with windchill, dip below -100 degrees Fahrenheit; it's impossible to see or to hear or to feel your extremities. And it's in these balmy conditions that our adventurers must find their way back down when a brutal storm hits.  

Filmed on location in Nepal and Italy, Everest feels totally unencumbered by CGI or special effects. The actors had to endure the wind and snow and cold, and their fatigue and fear appears to be the real deal on screen (unlike, with apologies to Chris O'Donnell, the angry panting before Vertical Limit's climactic leap).

Everest needs no nitroglycerin to amplify the drama. The true story is thrilling (and tragic) enough. 
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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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