How many you-know-whats do we give about people who voluntarily risk their lives for their own personal fulfillment? All films about high-stakes mountain climbing pose this implicit question. The best ones are typically documentaries, such as Touching the Void (2003) and the recent Meru, in which the climbers explain their motivations in their own words.
But those, of course, are the climbers who survived. A documentarian's camera can't capture actual moments of life-or-death struggle (though Meru comes close). So now we have Everest, an all-star drama based on the events of May 10 and 11, 1996, when eight people died on the world's highest mountain. Until 2014, when an avalanche took even more casualties, it was known as Everest's "deadliest day."
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, an Icelander with a résumé that ranges from indie drama to action cinema, Everest splits the difference between documentary reenactment and hyped-up Hollywood drama. Like Captain Phillips, it keeps the focus on documented events rather than making fanciful detours into realms such as character backstory.
The result is tense and thrilling. Those who shuddered through first-hand accounts of the disaster — such as Jon Krakauer's best-selling Into Thin Air — will welcome Everest as a visualization that could only have been accomplished with digital technology. (Granted, it's a disputed visualization; Krakauer has called the film "total bull.") This is the type of movie that justifies shelling out for 3D and the largest screen available; sweeping mountain vistas put the antlike climbers' plight in painful perspective.
As a drama about the individuals who chose to inflict that plight on themselves, Everest is less memorable, but it has its moments. The central figure is New Zealand climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who runs pricey adventure tours that bring amateurs up the mountain. Only two of his clients get much screen time: Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), an imperious Texan intent on getting his money's worth; and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a soft-spoken mail carrier who sees Everest as his last chance for a meaningful achievement. Always a master at fleshing out a character with a few lines, Hawkes tugs at the audience's heartstrings, just as Hansen does at Hall's. But the mountain harbors no such sentimentality.
The same generally goes for the script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, which doesn't hide that, by 1996, climbing Everest was a highly commercialized endeavor. When Weathers has to wait in a long line of aspiring summiters to cross a crevasse, he fumes that he didn't come to the top of the world for the Walmart experience.
Later, that sense of entitlement takes on a tragic irony. No one can pay the weather at 29,000 feet to cooperate, or the human body to respond well to a drastic depletion of oxygen. Hall and the other guides (including Scott Fischer, played in a McConaughey-esque mode by Jake Gyllenhaal) have tried to prepare their clients for disappointment. But perhaps they haven't adequately prepared themselves.
Toward the end, Everest becomes a chaos of bundled-up actors yelling at each other through oxygen masks. Kormákur has chosen immediacy over legibility, but his choice pays off: Regardless of whether we know who's tumbling to his death down a particular slope, the experience is harrowing. (Many of the oxygen-deprived climbers were confused by that point, too.) As the radio operator at base camp, Emily Watson offers a much-needed still point.
No unforgettable characters emerge from Everest, and its critique of adventure tourism remains tastefully in the background. (For a more damning one, read Krakauer's book.) It doesn't explore the viewpoint of the expedition's Sherpas, who risked their lives for more practical reasons. Essentially, the film is a vicarious tour of one of the world's most dangerous places that won't entail waiting in line (probably), let alone frostbite or death. Yet it may just convince you to regard such places with deep humility.