If you had a hankering to climb to the top of Mount Everest as a symbol of the "human adventure" at its greatest, you probably won't anymore after you've seen Baltasar Kormákur's film - its retelling of the tragic 1996 expedition that left five dead is possibly the best ad for not going there ever made. But, peculiarly enough, that's probably the reason why the latest big-studio endeavour by this Icelandic director is a more satisfying film than the initial reviews made it seem.
Everest makes good use of state-of-the-art technology not as an end in itself but as a means to an end - that is, as a way to tell its story of human drama at the very edge of physical endurance, and to make the spectacular visuals a mere backdrop to its characters' issues and experiences. It helps that Mr. Kormákur has eschewed the proverbial film-star stunt casting and instead goes for solid ensemble players: the narrative is anchored around the ever-reliable craftsmen that are Jason Clarke, John Hawkes and Josh Brolin, with the great Emily Watson as equally great backup. Also, not for nothing is Everest originally a British project, shepherded by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner's stalwart prestige boutique Working Title: its adherence to no-nonsense realism over widescreen heroics is an apparently throwaway element that becomes crucial to the film's harrowingly stoic descent into tragedy, as the teams of Rob Hall (Mr. Clarke) and Scott Fischer (an underused Jake Gyllenhaal) overshoot their summit and are caught by a monstrous storm on their way down.
In that sense, Everest follows on the footsteps of other directors who overlay the basics of melodrama onto hyper-realistic state-of-the-art backgrounds (see Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and hopefully Robert Zemeckis' upcoming The Walk). But Everest does not offer the saving grace of a happy ending; there's no triumph of the human spirit to celebrate here. Instead, we have a "true-story" drama that follows the rules pretty faithfully but gains gravitas and strength as it moves forward, as Salvatore Totino's crisply breathtaking cinematography and the discretion with which 3D is used take a backseat to the carefully modulated set-up of a warm-hearted, eventually heart-breaking ensemble piece. A model of efficient, intelligent "B-team" journeyman filmmaking like Hollywood seldom cares about doing these days, Everest may not be the event masterpiece some expected, and that's actually a very good thing.
US, UK, Iceland, 2015, 121 minutes
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Martin Henderson, Elizabeth Debicki, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur; written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, from the book by S. Beck Weathers and Peter G. Michaud Left for Dead and the Men's Journal article by Peter Wilkinson The Dead Zone; cinematographer Salvatore Totino; music by Dario Marianelli; designer Gary Freeman; costumes by Guy Speranza; editor Mick Audsley; effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Brian Oliver and Tyler Thompson, for Universal Pictures, Walden Media and Working Title Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, RVK Studios and Free State Pictures
Screened September 15th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, distributor press screening