Bias: I have no climbing experience. I was familiar with a book on which part of the events are based. A preview I read misrepresents the number of fatalities involved.
Christian Bale was attached to star as Rob Hall, but left to appear in Exodus. Director Baltasar Kormákur subsequently decided to transform the film to an ensemble version and Jason Clarke later replaced Bale.
I did not read that piece of trivia until after I finished watching Everest but I must say after looking at the final product in perspective, it makes sense. The movie is an ensemble with multiple character focuses. Despite the potential for a first-rate character actioner featuring good performances, the movie comes across as muddled as the blizzard it depicts.
The individual aspect weighs the film down as it initially groups the characters all together only to have them each fall apart individually. Their actions and outcomes are mostly the result of simple, explainable bad decisions. It is understandably realistic but not very narratively exciting to work with. There is a lack of character conflict, such as Krakauer’s noted criticism of Boukeerv choice to forego supplementary oxygen, or the former’s decision to rest instead of helping the latter rescue others. These events are witnessed by the audience but not significantly addressed; likely an attempt to provide an even-handed take on the events of what happened but in doing so, chills the thrills. The depiction of so many characters despite the capable stars portraying them blurs the film’s focus. Kormákur could stand to have used his running time more efficiently, less so typifying his characters into broadly and more so allowing us to take in the mountain view.
It seems a waste that on such a big screen (IMAX 3D) for such an event he doesn’t answer to the audience, or get to the bottom of why exactly all these characters do what they do, or more specifically we should care. Getting out of their tents on May 10th, 1996 the expedition looks to the clear sky to take in a beautiful vista. Show us that vista! Show us the stars and not just “the stars” telling us why we came all this way. We paid, we’re here! We want to be there with you!
I also have a hard time deciding who this movie was for. An early scene at Base Camp shows Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal) looking at obnoxious South African climbers as the camera focuses in on their ice cleats. He shakes his head. Why this? I don’t know. I assume the climbing experts might. The end credits, as well as an earlier training scene reveal various memorials to those that have lost their lives on the mountain. Peculiar enough some of those who even died the day of the disaster are scantily mentioned in the film. The picking and choosing don’t quite add up too strongly. Part of that could be false expectations on my part but it’s not as if the filmmakers had anything new or particular to say about the tragedy or the genre as a whole. The ending of the so-called story seems to write off a few of the characters undeservedly. And of course you see in the end captions how they did but why you couldn’t you show us some of it. We were just there. Is it too difficult to see?
There is some good to be said about the film in its performances. Although the actors are playing types they are all good and imbue their rote or forgettable roles with personality. They shine more so than the ensemble of Black Mass did but this time it’s to the detriment of each other. The arguably most relatable character Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) is given a lot of screen time that economically reduces other characters. Much could be made about how characters of comparable age from different economic backgrounds like Doug and Beck respond to their situation from a financial perspective. Josh Brolin fills his one-percenter with enough charm and spirit to compensate for his lack of character development. We see him careless, careful, possibly scared and strong but it all comes across so random that it’s hard what to make of it. I will say that it is nice for once all the actors getting to play in their native accents pays off in a naturalistic manner.
The one scene, the film’s best scene, and one of my favourite of the year is where Keira Knightley’s character Jan Arnold, the wife of head guide Rob is trying to motivate him to come down the mountain for help. Base Camp director (Emily Watson) connects her from satellite phone through walkie-talkie as other expedition climbers listen in on the radio frequency. It is the one time in the film where it all comes completely together, with the outcome of Australian native Jason Clarke taking the place of Christian Bale seems like a good thing. If only the filmmakers were inspired and confident enough to continue making the film with him in a more central role. The tears in her eyes [“You might as well be on the moon”] with past losses and future hopes felt impacting the line and line reading, we connect to Jan and thus the rest of the crew.
Sensing he can’t spin gold twice, Baltasar plays a similar situation with a different outcome more light-heartedly and to success, but what has come before makes it seem off-putting. Nothing in that film can top Keira Knightley’s peak work in that small role and that scene, leaving Everest’s flurry of acting talent on uneven pacing and ground as unstable as the mountain itself.
Soundbite: Caught between the sweeping spectacle and ever shifting human drama, Everest falls through the cracks in a dark historical blizzard.