A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2015


2015, PG-13, 121 mins.


Jason Clarke as Rob Hall  /  Jake Gyllenhaal as Scott Fischer  /  Josh Brolin as Beck Weathers  /  John Hawkes as Doug Hansen  /  Sam Worthington as Guy Cotter  /  Robin Wright as Peach Weathers  /  Keira Knightley as Jan Hall  /  Clive Standen as Ed Viesturs  /  Emily Watson as Helen Wilton

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur  /  Written by Mark Medoff, Simon Beaufoy, and Justin Isbell


Outside of obligatory rationales like “because it’s there” and perhaps man’s own deeply embedded need to explore the dangerous and unknown regions of our planet, I’ll never fully comprehend why anyone would ever want to climb to the summit of Mount Everest.  

It’s the Earth’s highest mountain, with a peak measuring nearly 30,000 feet above sea level.  Ever since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first official ascent of Everest in 1953, multiple generations of experienced climbers and mountain enthusiasts have tried to replicate that remarkably hazardous journey.  It’s not the simple matter of climbing Everest that’s the problem, per se, but all of the other inherent dangers therein: intense weather, threats of avalanches, altitude sickness, and dealing with diminished oxygen levels at such high peaks…all of these factors and many more conspire against human beings to achieve success in conquering Everest.  Yet, despite the incredibly high mortality rate for those that have attempted to do just that…people still try. 

EVEREST chronicles one of the more notable and disastrous efforts to reach Everest’s peak.  The film is based on the fact based events of May 11, 1996 when two expedition groups – one led by Scott Fischer and the other by Rob Hall – were caught near the mountain’s summit during a massive snow storm.  A few survived, but eight perished in the attempts to scale down the mountain.  Until the Everest avalanche of 2014 that killed 16 people, this tragic event in 1996 was, for its time, the deadliest incident to occur there.  The disaster prompted much public and media scrutiny, especially considering that both mountain expeditions had mostly amateur climbers in tow, which further elicited more questions regarding the validity and safety of commercializing climbing the mountain in the first place.  Under the technically assured eye of director Baltasar Kormakur (2 GUNS and CONTRABAND), EVEREST is an eerily authentic recreation – using cutting edge effects and judicious location shooting – of the ’96 tragedy.  Even when the film emerges as dramatically negligible and lacking in story and character dynamics, it’s Kormakur’s impeccable command of the filmmaking craft here that will linger with you. 



EVEREST is replete with multiple Oscar nominated performers, some doing thankless work, whereas others kind of going through the motions with what’s written for them on the page.  The always robustly dependable Jason Clarke plays Hall, the owner “Adventure Consultants,” a New Zealand based company that – for a ridiculously high price – will train and take adventure seekers up to Everest’s summit using every safety precaution at their disposal.  Jack is assisted by his second in command in Helen (Emily Watson), his eyes and ears at base camp.  After saying good-bye to his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), Hall begins preparations with his recruits, including author Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), Doug (John Hawkes), and Beck (Josh Brolin).  Jack never hides from his mountain climbing noobs the inherent perils of climbing Everest, but everyone seems enthusiastically up for the challenge…not fully realizing what they’re to expect. 

It’s not all smooth for Jack and company, especially considering that – upon arrival at Everest – they have to face off against multiple other companies and parties that also wish to scale it, like the owner or the rival “Mountain Madness” Scott (a near unrecognizable Jake Gyllenhaal), a by-the-seat-of-his-pants climber that seems to have a less safety conscious approach to taking his crew up the mountain.  Initially, both crews experience the same predictable hardships with the climb, but soon after they make it up to the summit a weather related disaster rears its ugly head in a massive way, leaving everyone’s lives hanging in the balance. 

EVEREST is, on an obvious negative, not an emotionally rich motion picture, which is made all the more apparent considering the genuine lack of any tangible character development, with the possible exception of Clarke’s Jack.  We are quickly introduced to the vast menagerie of personas that populate this film with relatively broad strokes, leaving EVEREST feeling like it has too many undercooked characters all vying for attention.  Visually, there are times when everyone in the film is outfitted from head to toe with arctic survival gear to the point of eliciting confusion in the audience as to who is who and how they relate to one another.  The female characters in EVEREST get a bit lost in the sausage fest that is this film.  Watson is strong and assured as Jack’s aid and Knightley does miracles being straddled with the umpteenth grieving pregnant wife back home role (Robin Wright also shows up in a one note role as Brolin’s spouse), but the screenplay never fully seems committed to fleshing them out in any meaningful way.  

That being said, though, EVEREST exists as pure spectacle, and on those very levels the film is a technical masterpiece.  One thing the film does uncommonly well is display, front and center, the insane enormity of the Everest challenge for both veteran and novice climbers and relaying what it physically and mentally takes to engage in such a sizeable undertaking.  EVEREST never shies away from dissecting the punishing extremes that ascending Everest has on the mind and body, which is greatly assisted by Kormakur’s bravura blending of location shooting (in Nepal and Italy), with outstanding editorial instincts, vertigo-inducing cinematography, and painstakingly rendered digital trickery to seamlessly recreate the events of 1996.  There have been many past films – of varying degrees of success – that have tried to “fake” the experience of mountain climbing, but EVEREST is in a whole other upper echelon of effectiveness; there’s rarely a moment in the film when you don’t truly feel trapped with those poor doomed souls, and it’s that level of startling immediacy and veracity that makes EVEREST astonishing to watch and intensely nerve-wracking to experience. 

Not all of EVEREST is hopelessly shallow on a performance level.  The film is anchored by strong work from Clarke, Hawkes, and Brolin, three actors that seem to understand the inherent limitations of their written characters, but somehow manage to make them emotionally relatable despite scripting deficiencies in doing so.  I only wished that EVEREST had more to say about one of its sadder and more pathetic thematic undercurrents: the whole transformation of mountain climbing as a hazardous activity for scientists and trained professionals to something that affluent thrill seekers aspire to (under most circumstances, the latter have no business being up there in the first place).  There’s no real substantial follow through here on the troubling conundrum of commercializing Everest as an extreme sport tourist destination.  Nevertheless, the whole visceral experience of watching EVEREST stayed with me well after screening it.  Very few films have showed both the beautiful grandeur and hellish risks of the mountain climbing experience as well as this one.  As a large-scale disaster picture, EVEREST is staggeringly well mounted and scrupulously executed.  See it on as big of a 2D screen as possible…and just avoid the distracting 3D. 

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