Based on an infamous real-life disaster which happened on Mount Everest in May 1996, “Everest” attempts to tell a chilling story about how everything went horribly wrong during that grim, horrifying moment of fear and chaos. Yes, they did know the risk of going into thin air from the very beginning, but then everyone became helpless and desperate as overwhelmed by the most unforgiving side of the mountain, regardless of how much they were prepared or experienced.
Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay successfully climbed up to its summit during their historical expedition in 1953, Mount Everest has constantly drawn many other mountaineers as the highest mountain on the Earth, and, as told at the beginning of the film, commercial expeditions began around the early 1990s. After New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) took the first step into this new business area with his company Adventure Consultants, other mountaineering experts including Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) soon followed after him, and the base camp of Mount Everest became crowded like a tourist spot despite hefty expedition fee.
At first, it just looks like another expedition to manage for Hall and his colleagues. While famous journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) joins this expedition for his assignment from Outside Magazine, we also meet the other notable members of Hall’s group including Buck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), and we get to learn a bit about each own personal reason for this expedition during their journey to Everest Base Camp, which is located at the altitude of 5,364 meters (17,598 ft).
As Hall’s group and other groups go through the preparation process, we see how demanding the climbing will be for most of them. While you can adapt your body condition to the low oxygen level in the air within several days, you will definitely need an oxygen tank once you climb above 6,000 meters (19,685 ft). Under this harsh condition coupled with a very high risk of hypothermia and hypoxia, even merely walking along the ridge requires a lot of will and strength from you, and you may become too dizzy and exhausted to go further even if you can see the summit not so far from you.
The situation turns out to be not very ideal for Hall’s group as well as other groups. Besides their considerably crowded base camp, there is also the unpredictable weather on Mount Everest, and it means there may not be enough chance for everyone at the base camp. When the weather finally becomes fine on May 10th, things look promising as Hall and his clients ready themselves for their big day, but then there come several complications including the unexpected long delay in the middle of their climbing. When Hall manages to take some of his clients to the summit and then finally begins his descent, he is already two hours behind the schedule.
Hall thinks he can handle this schedule problem as a well-experienced expert, but then the situation becomes quite worse as the base camp manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) has worried. The blizzard suddenly begins during the late afternoon, and all icy hell breaks loose upon everyone around the summit as a result. The weather becomes less hostile on the next day, but it is pretty clear to Wilton and others at the base camp that not all of their colleagues and clients will return.
Compared to the 1997 TV movie “Into Thin Air: Death on Everest”, which was based on the nonfiction novel of the same name written by Krakauer, “Everest” is surely superior on the technical levels as a major commercial film. While it certainly depends on CGI as much as location shooting, the director Baltasar Kormákur did a smooth job of mixing special effects and real landscapes on the screen, and the movie has some good tense moments which evoke my personal aversion to high places.
However, the film feels thin in case of story and characterization like many other disaster movies. The screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy often loses its focus as going around various characters, and it is also not easy to distinguish one character from another especially during the climax part. Covered with snow and frostbite, most of the expedition members all look uniformly terrible and exhausted without much distinction, and we can only appreciate the efforts the actors and the crew members of the movie put into their difficult scenes.
Some of the cast members are more recognizable to us, but they are limited by the weak story as much as the other actors in the film. Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, and Jake Gyllenhaal do whatever they can do with their colorless roles, and Robin Wright and Keira Knightley are unfortunately stuck with a quintessential case of thankless acting job we have seen many times before. As anxious wife characters, they usually hold their phones while fearing for the worst, and that is all they are required to do.
I recommend “Everest” mainly because I enjoyed its technical aspects, but I must also point out that it is not as good as that terrific book written by Krakauer or Kevin MacDonald’s great documentary “Touching the Void” (2003), which is about one legendary expedition on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. That documentary terrified me a lot as the most vivid and harrowing mountaineering film I have ever seen. In case of “Everest”, it simply entertained me, and that was all.