Wednesday, September 23, 2015

New movie review: Everest

Director Baltasar Kormakur's stunning new film Everest is a gripping exploration of the folly of man and the power of nature.

Hubris and boredom are really two sides of the same coin. Humanity has come a long way since it came down from the trees, and the evidence of that journey is obvious if we take even a second to consider the world around us. The seemingly never-ending advancement of technology gives the impression we can do pretty much anything, but by the same token, it means we rarely have to do anything. A vast majority of us will never till the land or hunt wild game in any meaningful way. By virtue of living in a mostly successful society, our needs are met.

These twin experiences of believing we can accomplish anything and having too much time on our hands mean feats such as scaling Mount Everest hold a strange place in our collective psyche. Nobody needs to climb Everest, but we applaud those who do. We stand in awe of the men and women who risk their lives to reach the highest peak on our planet. It is foolhardy at best and suicidal at worst, but every year, more and more people head to the top of the world, and the best explanation anyone seems to have comes from a British explorer who died trying: “Because it’s there.”

Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall in Everest.
The new film Everest explores the varying motivations of a group of climbers that participated in the 1996 expedition that proved the deadliest ever at the time – it was surpassed just last year in a tragic avalanche that killed 16 and this year in a series of avalanches that killed at least 19. If you are familiar with the popular Jon Krakauer book Into Thin Air, then you will be familiar with the basics of the story. However, director Baltasar Kormákur and screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy smartly cull their material from multiple sources, giving a broader view of the tragedy.

While the film is a true ensemble piece, the screenplay goes to great lengths to examine the individuals that make up that ensemble. There is Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a professional climber and the leader of the expedition who has a pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightly), at home. There is Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman out to prove to the schoolchildren back home what a regular guy can accomplish. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) is a wealthy Texan who feels most alive when he is climbing.

Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is a Japanese woman who has reached six of the seven highest peaks in the world, and Everest is the seventh. Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) is another professional climber who loves the thrill of it all. Even Krakauer (Michael Kelly) appears in the film. All these characters and more are carefully detailed early in the story, which gives later developments more emotional impact than most big action-adventure movies. Because we care about the individuals, we care about the group.

Clarke is essentially the lead of the film, and he does fantastic work in a harrowing role that is both physically demanding and emotionally exhausting. Hall states repeatedly through the film it is his job to take his clients to the top of Everest and bring them back down safely. He takes his work seriously, and when disaster strikes, he takes the ensuing tragedy personally. Clarke is careful not to play Hall as heroic but as a regular guy – albeit eminently skilled and incredibly brave – who makes his living in extraordinary circumstances, and the movie benefits from this portrayal.

Josh Brolin plays Beck Weathers in Everest.
In contrast to Hall, there is Weathers, who is full of Texas swagger and the kind of bravado that money seems to buy. Early in the film, after almost dying on an ice ladder, Weathers complains to Hall he did not pay $65,000 to wait in line for the ladder. His transformation on the mountain is the clearest in the film, and Brolin is expert at showing Weathers as simultaneously full of confidence and full of fear. The moment he realizes the price of feeling alive may be to die on the mountain is beautiful, and Brolin plays it perfectly.

Everest is unusual and refreshing in its dedication to character work. Many adventure and disaster films of this type hide behind spectacle, backgrounding the story and foregrounding impressive, if narratively empty, visuals. In the rare instance a film does try to examine character, it often comes across as clunky (Gravity) or undercooked (Interstellar). Everest manages both feats, telling a compelling story with grace and subtlety and wowing the audience with a stunning visual landscape.

In fact, stunning may be too light a word. I know many people who are happy with their home-theater systems – a high-definition, big-screen television and a great surround-sound system in the comfort of home. That is fine. Even as a proponent of going to the cinema, I am willing to admit there are certain movies that play well enough at home. This is not one of them. There is nothing in the movie-watching universe that will match the majesty of seeing Everest on the big screen – in IMAX (real IMAX), if possible.

Kormákur does not have an extensive resume, and if you know him from anything, it is probably one of his collaborations with Mark Wahlberg, either Contraband or 2 Guns, but his craftsmanship here is masterful. Mount Everest is an alien world right here on Earth, and Kormákur deftly evokes that feeling, giving us endless expanses of broken, jagged rock, impossibly deep crevices, and blinding snow whipping around constantly. Wide shots of distant figures trudging up the mountainside help emphasize humanity’s insignificance against the awe-inspiring power of nature.

Everest was here long before us, and it will remain long after we are gone. Humanity can cure disease, make art, and build flying machines that take us to outer space, and yes, we can even summit Everest, but we could never create it. Everest is a testament to something beyond human achievement. It is a tribute to the unconquerable state of the natural world. If the film reminds us of anything, it is this: We may stand on the mountain’s peak, but we will never reach its heights.

See it? Yes.

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