I don’t like places where my feet don’t touch the ground. Every time I’ve gone in the ocean it hasn’t been without the concern, regardless of how remote it might appear, that momentarily I’d be yanked out into the abyss. Also, sharks. Those two phobias, as well as several other miscellaneous frights, follow me into pools and lakes, as well; and the last time I checked pools have bottoms and lakes are coming up short in the Jaws department. Again, sense seldom accompanies a genetically primed, visceral aversion to aspects of the world. That same sense of barreling unease, the snowballing dread that attaches itself to your mind and maddeningly intensifies the more attention it draws towards itself, can follow me into a movie theater as well. Only a few years ago I sat in my seat and felt the ripples of helplessness as Sandra Bullock went end over end towards astral oblivion. To me, that was the sign of a job well done, that with popcorn in my lap and feet planted on sticky theater ground I was brought into contact with a sensation typically reserved for summer afternoons. That same replication was made manifest while watching the most recent IMAX spectacle, Everest.
Telling the story which John Krakauer (Michael Kelly, here) relayed in his best-selling Into Thin Air, the filmmakers behind Everest do an admirable job of treating both the human and the natural with reverence. The mountain isn’t belittled because, as one character somberly prophesies not in so many words, it never loses. And the people certainly aren’t made to appear foolhardy. Which is important, as this movie chronicles what was, at the time, the most dangerous day in the mountain’s history. (Sadly, given events of the last few years, this is no longer even one of the top two).
Not unlike the irascible group of rowdy thrill-seekers Michael Bay conjures up for us in Armageddon, we meet your every day nice guy (John Hawkes), the love-to-hate arrogant Texan (Josh Brolin), the good-vibes friendly rival (Jake Gyllenhaal), a handful of other expert climbers and relative newcomers, and our ostensible leader and hero, Rob (Jason Clarke). Rob is an experienced Everest climber from New Zealand (I’m sure that country’s proclivity towards this particular mountain is not unrelated to the efforts of Sir Edmund Hillary) who’s company, Adventure Consultants, all but promises to get its clients to the summit and down safe and sound. Amongst the party are repeat climbers who haven’t quite made it, intermediate climbers trying out the gorilla in the room for the first time, and people like Rob and his crew who have this absurd trek, this accomplishment which for any other person on the planet would be a glorious peacock feather in one’s cap, they have it tuned like a swiss watch.
Or, so they think. This is a disaster movie, after all, and just as in Armageddon we might forget for passages of time there was an asteroid hurtling toward our blue dot, so here the moments of camaraderie and team-building distract us from the somber reality that this particular climb does not go well. Are there stories of successful climbs which become best sellers? In any event, to get into the particulars of why this became a doomed ascent, and why within the initial miscues even further, classically tragic events would unfold, is to both spoil the narrative and to some extent fail to acknowledge that these were real people (I’m assuming it was correct in Krakauer’s book and in the movie) and their actions and outcomes deserve more reverence than a dispassionate crossing off of a name on a list. There are long portions of the movie which remind me of The Grey, the Liam Neeson wolf throat punching movie that is often times a punchline but impacted me more than most art-house or indie tweefests have in some years. The best parts of that movie for me were the contemplative ones, the moments of cold candor where a person acknowledges their impending death, something which I still can’t quite appreciate though I know it’s been done by all ages all throughout existence, and how they chose too meet that end. While The Grey was pure fiction, something like Everest reminds you that this does indeed happen, not necessarily with the pursuit of something as hellacious as a pack of timberwolves, though it is nature reiterating its default setting of indifference towards us, and maybe in that is our lesson. It’s been told from Melville to London to Hemingway – nature is bigger and crueler than we could ever hope to be, primarily because we invent words like cruel and attempt to apply them where they doesn’t belong. The instant we assign intent or motive to our surroundings is when we lose respect for it, and is there a better set up to tragedy in an outdoors movie than losing respect for nature?
In the ensuing chaos and confusion of the climb, people at base camp and at home fret and worry and curse their exhaustion while those they love and have sworn to look after battle unthinkable conditions. It’s a credit to the movie that you feel it along with them. Things that wouldn’t occur to me – helicopters can’t operate that high because of the air’s thinness, oxygen tanks need to be stored ahead of time to aid in descent – are inserted in heartbreakingly organic terms in the script, each realization adding a level of devastation to a trip that in hindsight looks to have been deliberately conceived to fail.
All of the performances are solid, if a bit one note. It would have been nice to see performers of the level of Hawkes and Brolin and Gyllenhaal with more to do, as well as Keira Knightley and Emily Watson, both of whom imbue characters assembled basically to fret and worry with real meaning. And again, to call them characters is almost callous – these were friends and coworkers and wives. As it stands, Everest is a fitting tribute to the mountain which serves as the ultimate beam of light for the moths risky enough to endeavor.
As for the format, having not seen it in IMAX 3D I can’t adequately say if the experience is less than if you shell out for the premium ticket. What I can attest is that the scenes of unthinkably long bridges, seemingly every inch of which are adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, suspended over “I-can’t-touch-the-bottom” crevasses are gorgeous. So are the captured panoramas of the mountain – above, below, all around, it’s likely as close as I’ll ever get to Everest, and yet I won’t feel I’ve been cheated. So while it’s possible that shots of cascading ice and snow, terrifyingly jagged, absurdly deep crevasses and overall confidence-eradicating magnitude announce themselves similarly with standard screens, they unequivocally do on The Big One.