Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writers: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy
I’m a big fan of real-life survival stories, especially when they feature great feats of exploration and conquest. One of my favourites is that of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates whose unbelievable tale was stupendously captured by the Kevin Macdonald documentary Touching the Void. Even if the tale doesn’t end in the characters’ survival, I still think there’s something admirable in the idea of men and women venturing forth into unknown dangers and giving their lives in the name of progress and discovery. The tale of Robert Scott’s ill-fated voyage to the South Pole, as encapsulated by The Great White Silence, is one that I think embodies man’s remarkable capacity for bravery, endurance and adventure. These tales, when done well, can provide profound demonstrations of the awesome power of nature and of the indomitable human spirit. This film seeks to do just that by telling the tale of the unfortunate troop that dared to attempt one of nature’s greatest challenges, Mount Everest.
In May 1996 Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads an expedition up Mount Everest that is to end in disaster. His troop includes Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a mountaineering veteran, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), an ordinary man attempting an extraordinary feat, and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who seeks to complete her quest to climb the Seven Summits. Their expedition coincides with that of Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose strenuous methods contrast with Rob’s handholding attitude. Amongst the dangers these groups face are the unpredictable weather conditions, the high-altitude illnesses and the aptly named ‘death zone’, the point at which human life becomes unsustainable. The one point that these guides cannot stress enough is that Everest is a great, powerful, untameable beast and that their lives are going to be in danger every step of the way. Their best chance of survival is to remain vigilant, work together and to not underestimate the mountain. Sometimes, however, even that is not enough, as these parties would soon learn.
Unfortunately Everest was not the harrowing tale of the human spirit that was promised but there is nevertheless a lot that it does well. The one thing in particular that really stood out for me was the mountain itself. Through the use of excellent cinematography and well-used 3D technology, the film was able to portray Mount Everest in all of its majesty and grandness. The sheer size and powerful presence of this mountain drives home the awe-inspiring nature of this voyage and the foreboding challenges that come with it. I can only imagine how this film must have looked in IMAX! The film also does a good job in the exposition stage as it establishes the nature of this mountain and details the many threats to be faced by the climbers. The disaster itself is also unnerving to watch, especially when it becomes abundantly clear that some of the climbers are not going to survive. Watching the way that some of these characters simply drop out of the picture without a word or even a whimper, never to be seen again, has a chillingly unsettling effect.
However where this film falls short is in the characters themselves. The simple problem is that there are far too many of them and not enough time to give them all the exposure and development that they require. Some manage to leave an impression such as Clarke as the passionate yet precautious Rob and Brolin as the determinedly brash Beck. Keira Knightly as Rob’s wife Joan also manages to give a surprisingly effective performance considering what little screen time she has. For the rest of the ensemble though there simply isn’t much to hold on to. The characters end up distinguishing themselves more by star power than by personality. When the disaster actually struck the only reason I could recognise who was who was because I recognised the actors playing them. This ended up having a detaching effect on me as I struggled to empathise with their anguishes.
Overall this film succeeds in portraying the imposing sovereignty of nature as personified by Mount Everest, but not in depicting the inspiring robustness of the human heart. In other words it delivers on the technical aspects but not on the emotion. The disaster that befalls Everest is as powerful as it is devastating and is a spectacle to watch. However the people on the ground who fall victim to this calamity ultimately amount to little more than bodies in the snow. There are perhaps one or two individuals whose losses I did feel, but the others simply didn’t register with me. I think it might be the Pearl Harbour effect where a film gets so caught up with the disaster that it forgets about the tragedy, although certainly not to the same degree. Some moments were moving enough that I cannot accuse this film of being emotionally empty. However it simply doesn’t have enough of the anguishing sorrow, the rousing endurance and the poignant inspiration that a film like this should have.