Calm before the Everest storm
High tension but little drama in this disaster yarn, says Paul Whitington
With its star-studded cast and creeping sense of impending doom, Everest reminded me of the classic 1970s disaster movies, in which the hairdos of leading ladies were built to withstand tornadoes, earthquakes and other cataclysms. The bigger the star, the better chance they had of surviving whatever nightmare was thrown at them, though that is one unwritten disaster movie rule Everest doesn't adhere to.
Seventies disaster movies didn't have the luxury of IMAX and 3D, and Baltasar Kormakur's film puts these technical advances to good use. But Everest's effectiveness as a drama is severely hamstrung by the fact that it's based on a true story. In the late spring o f 1996, two tourist expedition groups got trapped on the upper reaches of fearsome Himalayan peak by a sudden storm that whipped up freezing blizzards and reduced visibility to near zero. Everest dutifully tells their story, which is built around an expedition led by New Zealand climber Rob Hall, played here by Jason Clarke.
At that point Hall and other expert mountaineers had begun setting up businesses that allowed less-experienced climbers to take on peaks they wouldn't stand a chance of scaling on their own. And when he arrives in Nepal with a group of enthusiastic amateurs in early May, 1996, he finds Everest's Base Camp overrun with similar groups all hoping to make an ascent.
In his care are a brash Texan doctor called Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a mild-mannered postman, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and a curious journalist (Jon Krakauer). Free-wheeling American climber Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) is hoping to lead a similarly callow crew to the summit, and rival teams from South Africa and Europe are also readying themselves for ascent.
This bottleneck of beginners seems bound to cause trouble once they get up on the mountain, and after a weather window opens on May 10, they all head up at the same time. But when a fierce storm hits, there are two few shepherds and too many sheep.
Weather is the big star in Everest. High winds, storms and blizzards buffet the pampered faces of its stars, wonderfully rendered by Cgi and billowing forth with deafening veracity from the cinema sound systems. It all looks pretty authentic too: the film was shot on location in Nepal, Iceland and the Italian Alps, and Clarke, Gyllenhaal and Brolin all swatted up on their climbing.
Most convincing they look too, but their characters are so indistinguishably decent that after a while it becomes pretty hard to care. Okay James Brolin's doctor is a bit brash, a trifle too Texan, and Jakes Gyllenhaal's devil-may-care climber seems to be asking for trouble, but by and large these are affable chaps in a dreadful situation.
Because the director and writers are obliged to stick to a true story, there are none of the diverting dramatic asides you'd get in a normal disaster movie - people sleeping with people they really shouldn't, simmering enmities, perhaps a villain prone to cutting rivals' ropes.
Everest could have done with some of that, because once they get up high and the weather hits, there's a numbing monotony to their weary trudging, and their silent efforts to survive.
As the blizzard thickens, it becomes ever harder to tell who's who under the hoods and masks, and how you should be feeling about them. Most of them are men, and I find it difficult to understand why Keira Knightley and Robin Wright accepted throwaway roles as waiting, marginalised wives.
Everest is nice to watch, and pretty impressive technically. But it becomes a bit of an effort after a while, and it's always hard to deeply sympathise with the thrill-seeking western climbers who choose to strand themselves on the sides of treacherous mountains, as opposed to the poor Sherpas forced for a meagre fee to follow them into harm's way.