Movie Review: Everest
By Ben Gruchow
September 30, 2015
They got the feel of it right. Baltasar Kormákur’s big-budget studio rendition of the 1996 Everest climbing disaster, which left several experienced mountain climbers dead and led to survivor John Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air, recreates Mount Everest and the dangers of summiting it with a surprising degree of tactile heft. We know that we are not watching people actually reach the Balcony, the Hillary Step, and the summit, and that we are looking at a sophisticated combination of effects work, but the illusion is seamless.
Is that enough to warrant a recommendation? It depends on how much you’re looking to get from the movie’s story, which obligates itself to the plot points of 1990s disaster films so faithfully that you’d think it was trying to honor its time period. We know the characters involved were real people, and the movie charts the course of their journey accurately, but it’s odd how it feels like it’s also trying to shape them into a cinematic archetype. Is that because it’s merely forcing clichés, or because - to cite one example - expedition leader Rob Hall really did have a pregnant wife at home, and he really did find out that it was going to be a girl the night before he begins his fateful ascent?
We do know that four of Hall’s 11-member expedition did not survive the Everest descent because of two main factors, both of which the movie depicts consequentially: catastrophic lack of planning (there were some 30-odd climbers on that day, one of the few out of the year where summiting Everest isn’t a lethal proposition, where nobody had the foresight to agree on a course of action that would lead everyone to the top and back in enough time) and a freak blizzard that hit the climbers roughly three hours into their descent. None of this is news, and the movie doesn’t treat it as such; we are left with the characterizations of nearly 20 individuals (the climbers, plus the people at Base One, plus assorted family members back home), each of whom are assigned one or two personality traits and guided to filter their actions through those traits.
This is set against the backdrop of an absolutely standard disaster-movie timeline: we get our introductions, a conversation where the nature of the hazard is explained, some character grace notes, early warning signs (in the first of the delays encountered, there were no guide ropes laid across some of the most treacherous terrain of the ascent; this would be irritatingly convenient in a fictional narrative, but it really did happen and was one of the initial events preceding the disaster), and there’s even some moments of ruinous bravado - where the smart thing to do would be turn around and leave and not invite crisis, but the characters are too caught up in making the right symbolic choice to use their brains in the moment. Of course, one of the big symptoms of altitude sickness is impediment to brain function, so this could legitimately be a catalyst for the events of the descent as well.