Everest: Film Review
Cast: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Keira Knightley, Martin Henderson, Emily Watson, Josh Brolin, Robin Wright
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
"The mountain will have the last word."
With this year's Sherpa playing at the New Zealand International Film Festival and the recent Nepal earthquake foremost in Kiwi minds, Everest can certainly lay claim to being topical.
It's the story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, when, during a busy climbing season and in the impatience of the early days of adventure tourism, tragedy struck resulting in Kiwi mountain guide Rob Hall and two others forfeiting their lives.
However, despite the sensitive touches made to Everest's script throughout, and the lengths gone to by the writers to add shades to Hall's evidently nice guy persona, Everest is a disaster movie through and through, steeped in the traditions and tropes of many a film of its ilk before it.
Crowding on the mountain with players, 2 Guns and Contraband director Baltasar Kormakur surrounds Jason Clarke's Hall with relatively cardboard characters and paints them with the broadest brush strokes possible (including some terrible attempts at the New Zealand accent - largely from Emily Watson, who channels South African in parts and seems to be challenging Ben Kingsley's attempts in Ender's Game). It's disaster movie 101 when broken down in to the sum of its parts - time spent to introduce characters and have them dashed cruelly by nature's force.
And yet, with sweeping stereoscopic 3D cinematic vistas conveying the scale of the mountain and some stunning shots (a peek out onto the mountain in the dark of midnight when all the stars are out is nothing short of magnificent), Everest summits the limitations of its characters to produce a piece that's emotionally draining in parts when the storm rolls in - and which almost feels intrusive in its ultimate finale and execution.
But aside from nature, Everest really peaks with Clarke's stoic performance.
His grounded and human Hall is a masterpiece of subtlety, an all-round good guy who collects rubbish from the mountain, while offering a mailman who wants to summit the peak a discount on his third attempt and a guy who when the chips are down puts everyone else first. Clarke's take on Hall works at an emotional level and transcends the written limitations of a slower first half that takes time to only build on a few character traits of those in the ensemble around Hall (witness Hawkes' mailman, Brolin's Texan swagger, Gyllenhaal's laid-back mountain guide to name but a few).
If the disaster comes in too quickly and the climbers are lost within a swirl of coats and goggles, perhaps that's symptomatic of conditions on a mountain - but it could also be some of the limitations of a script that's spent time building an ensemble of characters and which doesn't quite know what to do with them all (eg the South Africans who are so vocally against the climbers but who disappear) and there's certainly no shortage of cliched language and exhortations throughout. Wisely though, this Everest steers clear of apportioning blame for the disaster, preferring instead to signpost moments throughout.
However, there's no denying a feeling that these are real people who died on the mountain and who suffered, so moments of queasiness and unease pervaded my viewing of the film - particularly given that the movie is a Hollywood piece that proffers little hope come the end. But the palpable sense of emotion when the end finally comes is tangible and there won't be many who leave Everest feeling nothing - occasionally though, a little more subtlety, a tighter script and a little less by-the-numbers disaster flick would have benefited this already tense and occasionally coldly claustrophobic film greatly.