There is one – just one – sequence in the first act of Everest that cuts directly to the core of the film’s humanity. In the early stages of the climbers’ training, before they make final preparations to ascend to the peak of Mt. Everest, and obviously before any of them knew what an ill-fated expedition it would turn out to be, the trailblazing journalist Jon Krakauer (well-played in the film by Michael Kelly) asks the only question that matters from a humanist perspective: “Why?” Why would this group of people – most of them wealthy, with varying levels of climbing experience – suffer through the torment of training for a 12-hour climb to the summit of a treacherous mountain when A) based on conditions, there is no guarantee that they will even be able to reach said summit, and B) they could, ya know, die in any number of hideous ways.
This is not merely the most vital question from a journalistic standpoint, but also from a critical one. The key emotional hinge for a survivalist tale – even one based on true events, where most of us already know the outcome – is empathy with the characters, and that is generated via understanding. The ultimate failure of Baltasar Kormakur’s effects-laden adventure film is that it seems unwilling – or, worse, unable – to address Krakauer’s simple-yet-profound question. There is no “why” for these characters, and as such there is no “why” for the movie’s existence – outside of an onslaught of dizzying CG vistas which serve as the canvas on which an expansive cast of recognizable stars paint a portrait of human suffering.
Not that human suffering is somehow an invalid artistic subject. To the contrary, within the appropriate context, it is one of the most shattering and humane of filmic points of view. But without that context—without the “why” – it starts to feel like opportunistic audience baiting. To be fair, Everest doesn’t dwell as intently as it could on the continued suffering and – spoiler alert – many deaths that occurred during a would-be routine guided ascent of Everest by a then-unblemished New Zealand company in the spring of 1996. Whereas Kormakur gleefully waded in exploitative waters in 2012’s Contraband and especially 2013’s 2 Guns, the sobering real-life tragedy seems to have instilled a welcome sense of restraint from the Icelandic filmmaker. But working from a screenplay (by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) with the central identifying endeavor of attaching respected names (among them Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, and Keira Knightley) to its otherwise one-dimensional characters, and converting the finished product for an “exclusive” IMAX 3-D release in advance of going wide in other formats seems a little snuff-ish in light of the heartbreaking scenario being depicted.
Of the aforementioned technical prowess, I can say it is impressive, albeit intermittently. For every staggering, cliff-peering sequence of CG expertise, there are plenty of shots in which the harsh soundstage lighting is obvious and any propulsive intensity the film has generated comes to a crashing halt. It’s not a great indication of your film’s staying power when informed viewers can cherry pick the scenes that will look laughably bad in a few years’ time.
What that means is the responsibility for overcoming technical flaws and engaging the audience lies where it frankly should – with the story and characters. Nicholson and Beaufoy aren’t able to provide many shades to the source story; the screenplay is a mostly shapeless travelogue that reiterates the events without much forward motion, aside from the obviously compelling developments of a winter storm or a mini-avalanche. As for the large, enormously talented cast, they do what they can with flat material and static characters. Curiously, most static among them is the de facto lead, tour guide Rob Hall, played by the great Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) essentially as written – saintly and kind with no deeper shades whatsoever. What drove Hall to persist on months-long expeditions with overt dangers and questionable outcomes when he had a loving wife at home with a baby on the way? That’s an intriguing question the film doesn’t even attempt to answer. So we are left incredulous, pondering Krakauer’s essential, now eternal question. Why?
Everest doesn’t answer, leaving us to watch uninteresting people suffer for two hours, which is not my idea of entertainment – not even in IMAX 3-D.