There’s a danger in adapting a real life tragedy to film in overdoing the sentimentality, or adding unnecessary drama to tragic moments in order to artificially amp up the emotional stakes. Thankfully Everest avoids such pitfalls, and aside from a minor slump in pacing in the midpoint of the film, manages to convey the harsh reality of man versus nature in a very real, and very unforgiving way.
Back in 1996, climbing to the top of the world’s highest mountain had become a tourist sport. After decades of only professional climbers following in Hilary’s footsteps, now amateur adventurers could pay for a guide to take groups up to the peak, resulting in circumstances where multiple teams compete to make the climb at the same time, creating a dangerous bottle neck of people in the short safe window that the conditions on the mountain allows. On May 10th, various groups were attempting the ascent, and the film focuses on two of those teams who ascended together on the south face. Rob Hall’s (Jason Clarke) ‘Adventure Consultants’ team, and Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) ‘Mountain Madness’ team. The tight window of conditions gives them a targetted safe return time of 2pm, meaning the groups need to summit by that time to ensure the safest conditions for descending back to camp. However multiple issues impact on the ascent, including fixed lines not being in place, and delays caused by some of the inexperienced climbers suffering the adverse effects of such high altitudes. With a delay in reaching the summit, an advancing storm then provided further problems for the groups as they descended.
The real events of the disaster have been written about in detail by a few of those connected to the climb, and have also created controversy as each writer tried to apportion blame for the events. Thankfully the film doesn’t appear to take any sides, and cleverly incorporates aspects of all possible reasons for some of the poor decisions or issues that all compounded to lead to the loss of lives on that day. The film also touches on the issues with the ‘danger tourism’ industry that compounded the issues that day, from arguments between rivalling teams, to the discarding of empty oxygen cannisters creating confusion over locations of full supplies on the mountain. Most impressively, as mentioned, the film carefully avoid overly dramatising the events, and simply presents a rather brutal aspect of man versus nature. Hall, early in the film, explains to his group the danger involved, and that above a point your body will be literally dying, and the later parts of the film shows this well with even the experienced climbers struggling for breath and fighting conditions. The punishing nature of the mountain is conveyed in all its brutal glory, and when one of the team asks the group for reasons why they want to do it, you completely understand his bewilderment at the reasons given – is it really worth so much risk to make the journey?
The answer to why, however, is made very clear thanks to some remarkable cinematography and effects work, to convey the splendour and majesty of the mountain. To stand on the highest point of the earth, and take in that view after such a gruelling climb must be such an amazing feeling, no wonder so many each year want to risk it. But along with the beauty, the direction also ensures the danger is covered well, and the early part of the film focuses on the initial training the teams must do to prepare themselves for the climb. This act of the film not only highlights how some of these climbers are simply not ready for such gruelling conditions, but also works as a team bonding, allowing us, the audience, to get to know the characters. We are also given a link to the outside world via Rob Hall’s wife, Jan (Keira Knightly), and the family of Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin). Through them we see how the events of that month impacted on them, and they give the emotional core for the film, but without feeling forced or saccarine.
All in all, Everest is a visually striking film, highlighting the passion and motives for those wanting to risk the ascent to the highest point on earth, whilst also showing how in the battle between man and nature, nature will generally win. The 3D lends well to the film, and really takes in the vertigo inducing moments of the climb, making it yet another rare example of a film where I extol the importance of seeing in the format (and, if possible, IMAX 3D where the visuals will also be accompanied by a brutal sound system). Telling the basic story without unnecessary embellishment, the film has a strong cast throughout, and doesn’t outstay its two hour run time.