At last, an adventure movie that does without action-epic superhero BS. It’s simply You Are There with a dozen likeable, determined climbers coping with calamity in a place that, for all the help that can be sent, ‘might as well be on the moon.’ The excellent depth effects all but nail us to the screen.
Blu-ray + DVD
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
2015 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date January 19, 2016 / 49.98
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robin Wright, Martin Henderson, John Hawkes, Naoko Mori, Michael Kelly, Emily Watson, Sam Worthington.
Cinematography Salvatore Totino
Film Editor Mick Audsley
Original Music Dario Marianelli
Written by William Nicholson, Simon Beaufroy
Produced by Nicky Kentish Barnes, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormákur, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
I’ve heard no Oscar buzz surrounding Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, which makes sense. It isn’t the kind of movie that courts awards, but it’s one of the better movies I saw in 2015. Adventure pictures about climbing mountains are typically rife with clichés or serve as a background for other genres – usually spy pictures (the Eastwood Eiger movie) or preposterous action nonsense (a Stallone movie that I don’t even want to remember the title of). The old German classics are almost fantasies, making spiritual statements through weird visuals, while the good vintage climbing movie Ted Tetzlaff’s The White Tower is a moral tract committed to repressing the undefeated Nazi threat.
Everest is about something that happened, nothing more. It gives us a raw account of a disastrous 1996 climb of the highest mountain on Earth that left a number of people dead including professional guides. The filmmakers opted for realism, and made the refreshing choice not to burden their story with external themes or morals. We get plenty of opportunity to decide for ourselves what went wrong or who is responsible for the disaster. Before the ascent, the climbers do a round robin with the big ‘why climb?’ question. Everybody is motivated for different reasons and it is easy to say that the desire to achieve in this way is frivolous or irresponsible. But why do we do anything in life? it’s easy to criticize the other guy’s reasons for doing something.
Rob Hall (Jason Clarke of 2010’s Trust) runs a company called Adventure Consultants that guides climbers on packaged-tour ascents of Mount Everest, a goal that not long before was attempted only by a few hardy professionals. By 1996 several other guides have started similar companies, and they crowd into the brief Spring climbing window as competitors. Rob leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Kiera Knightley) back in New Zealand, and with his base camp crews and expert associates, takes a number of clients up the mountain. All pay $65,000 for the privilege except for Rob’s buddy Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman who gets a discount. A freebie is Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) a journalist (and author of Into the Wild who can get Adventure Consultants big exposure in Outside magazine. A paying client is Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a wealthy Texan who is risking his marriage by not telling his wife Peach (Robin Wright) about this trip before the fact. Another is the cheerful Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) a petite, enthusiastic Japanese who has climbed all the other big Himalayan peaks and wants to finish the last.
Rob’s outfit has some friction with the other commercial climbing guides. Because of crowding, Jon makes a mutual support arrangement with Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a friendly, rather laid back guide. But their respective lead Sherpas don’t get along at all. The ascent is slowed in the crossing of a crevasse. Then the climbers must wait two hours because a critical ledge hasn’t been staked out with guide ropes. By the time they’re making their final ascent they’ve all been at the energy-draining high altitude far too long. Scott insists on doing superhuman feats, running up and down with extra supplies, etc.. Rob ensures that most of his climbers make the peak, but he breaks his own rules. One climber goes snow-blind but Rob doesn’t insist that he descend immediately. And Rob can’t resist helping another client up the last several hundred yards, even though they’re way beyond the time limit recommended for retreating down the mountain. When a massive storm hits, the combined parties are caught unprepared – late, strung out along the trail, and critically short on oxygen.
Everest really delivers in the realism department, combining footage filmed in Nepal with shooting in the high snow of Europe. The big surprise is that much of the climbing was done on sound stages, with blue screens and digital effects. The quality is so good that, even though we know the climbers can’t be atop Everest, we’re convinced they are way up somewhere real. Director Kormákur uses the effects to place us in the extreme location, not to deliver a constant stream of ‘wowie’ images. The scenery is certainly stunning, but there are no show-off impossible camera moves, flying around people in precarious positions. Although many camera positions, logically speaking, are taken from a couple of feet ‘out in the air’ away from the side of cliff, there’s enough of the feeling that what we see could have been taken with a real camera to make us forget about technical issues. The absence of plastic rocks and obvious process work helps, but Kormákur makes things totally convincing from the start, which causes us to put aside our Fakery Detectors. Being kept busy with this group of interesting climbers does the rest.
Get any group of people out in the wild in a situation where they must cooperate with one another, and true personalities soon come to the fore. With no cardboard villains foisted at us, we like everybody and want all of them to succeed. We don’t know why the competing climb guide at the meeting is so angry, so we don’t judge him out of hand. Jake Gyllenhaal’s guide Scott Fischer seems too easy-going and mellowed out, as if he’s high on weed. He drinks a lot too. But those details don’t ‘explain’ who Scott is. In action he’s the picture of responsible, reliable behavior, the kind of guy who will flash an encouraging smile in the worst of conditions. We want guys like Scott on our team. Josh Brolin’s Beck is a little abrasive. He has family issues, but we don’t know the facts. Rob’s pregnant wife at home doesn’t resent what he does, as she’s a climber herself. There are no lame cutaways to ‘telling details’ that foreshadow problems and no hints of childhood traumas that will cause somebody to freak out — no melodramatic BS to force the drama into an author’s thesis.
Instead we get a mixed bag of good luck and bad, crossed signals and problems of miscommunication. Had the weather cooperated, everything may have worked out okay. But when things go wrong, they go very wrong. Every decision suddenly seems like a bad one when the pros can’t keep the amateurs on their feet. A shortage of supplemental oxygen makes people go out of their heads.
There’s no way to apply poetic justice to anything that happens. The one man we think can get through anything, finds himself stranded and immobilized and freezing to death. Technology can only do so much. His friends can’t reach him, but with a satellite phone he can communicate his last words to his wife, thousands of miles away.
I had a semi-negative reaction to one character, which mostly reveals my own bias — and lack of tolerance? The fellow complains about the money and refuses to heed Rob’s warning. His survival is almost a miracle, but his situation forces helicopter pilots to take an incredible risk to rescue him.
It’s an engrossing, sad story. But what kind of tragedy is it? These aren’t ordinary victims taken by surprise. The danger is part of the thrill – if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Adventure Consultants’ excellent safety record is no guarantee; that’s why they call it real life adventure and that’s why they are there. Everest gives us plenty to think about but stays neutral when it comes to judging people. The audience takes that role. Did one character over-exert himself to a state of collapse? Was he overtaken by an unpredictable health issue? Or was the cold just too much?
More discussion points arise. Did Rob Hall take risks to impress the magazine reporter embedded with his climbers? The climbers dream the impossible dream, but when things get tough some rescue person must risk their life to pull them back from the brink. It’s not fair to say that climbing mountains is in itself irresponsible. We don’t hear anybody complain that they were cheated or that someone is to blame. And rescue people can always say, “that’s too risky,” if too much is asked of them. Everest brings dangerous adventures back to the limits of the real world, allowing us to admire the climbers as people, not superheroes. And it’s always exciting to see smart, positive people working together, whether they succeed or fail. The show opens other points for discussion without exaggerating its dramatic events. I recommend it.
By the way, through articles on the web, the journalist Jon Krakauer has seriously dissed Everest with interviews stating that the whole movie is ‘total bull.’ His actual complaint is much more compartmentalized. With movies, it’s pretty much a given that events, personalities and plain facts get fudged. Everest would not seem a major offender at all.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s 3-D Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD release of Everest is a stunning encoding of this true-life, technically adept adventure story. The visuals and audio are great in every respect. The images are particularly vibrant in the 3-D version, which made the experience all the more immersive. I only noticed that the depth effect was a little funky in shots of vast scenery — there was ‘depth separation’ between mountains ten miles away, and other mountains far behind them. It seemed to change the scale of those shots, making the mountains look like miniatures. Does that make sense?
Universal has an audio commentary with Baltasar Kormákur, whose Icelandic accent requires full attention when listening. I noticed an extra descriptive audio track apparently for the sight-challenged people. It even described the action in the opening logos of the various production companies.
The show is given four fairly brief production featurettes, all in good quality and with subtitles, like the rest of the movie. The actors and director talk about the shoot, the actors, the real story, and finally the special effects. This of course was a surprise, to see how much of the intensely realistic film was made on sound stages.
With the standalone flat Blu-ray disc and the DVD included, the show should be playable on all equipment. The HD codes for the digital download are subject to expiration, with a website to explain when. I looked up Everest there but the title didn’t show under “E”, and the search function didn’t work either.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
3-D Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD rates:
Sound: Excellent English, French, Spanish
Supplements: Commentary with the director; featurettes Race to the Summit: The Making of Everest, Learning to Climb, A Mountain of Work and Aspiring to Authenticity: The Real Story
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French Spanish.
Packaging: One 3-D Blu-ray, one flat Blu-ray, One DVD in keep case in Card Sleeve
Reviewed: January 10, 2016
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