Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Stars: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington
Mountain movies are a talking point in any place where hillwalkers meet, from the bar of Glen Coe's Clachaig Inn to the wall shelter on Scafell Pike to the desks of Country Walking and Trail.
Fact or fiction? Touching the Void or Black Narcissus? Cliffhanger or The Eiger Sanction? Third Man on the Mountain or Nordwand? Chris O'Donnell lugging nitroglycerin up K2 in Vertical Limit or - God help us - William Shatner scaling El Capitan in Star Trek V?
Into this fierce fray comes a film which could just be the definitive visual guide to what it's like to climb the planet's highest mountain. Everest is based on the true story of the 1996 Everest disaster, in which eight climbers lost their lives in a freak storm - to that point (before the earthquake/avalanche disasters of 2014 and 2015) the biggest loss of life in a single day on the mountain.
Some may know this story well: it was told in the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a journalist from US magazine Outside who was party to the events. But while highly acclaimed, his version of events has been heavily disputed. This movie is not an adaptation of the book, but those who know the intricacies of the debate will still be intrigued to see how the film handles this problem. Those who know nothing about the story shouldn't worry, though; the drama explains itself clearly enough.
This is a film that comes from the heart. At the press preview attended by LFTO, we met co-producer David Breashears, a U.S. film-maker and mountaineer who has summited Everest five times and was also a producer and climbing advisor on Cliffhanger. He explained that he was actually there at Base Camp during the events of 1996, filming one of the first IMAX movies - also titled Everest. He witnessed the appalling rogue storm that forms the dark heart of this story, and its aftermath. He has wanted to get this movie made ever since.
The storm is one pillar of the story, but the other is the commercialisation of Everest. A pointed opening caption tells us that for 40 years after Hillary and Tenzing, only top professional mountaineers climbed the mountain. That all changed with New Zealand climber and entrepreneur Rob Hall, whose company Adventure Consultants pioneered guided climbs for non-professionals in 1991. You had to be an experienced climber to join them, yes, but not a pro. So we meet Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), founder of AC, and find that his group includes amiable postman-cum-carpenter Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and swaggery Texan pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin). Krakauer is there too, although he appears to do little actual journalism beyond a convenient "why do you all do this?" scene.
But these guys aren't alone. By 1996, a whole industry of guided climbing has sprung up in Hall's footsteps, and Base Camp is a sprawling dayglo slum of tents, the staging post for ascents by companies from all over the globe (including some very nasty South Africans, who don't come out of this at all well).
Hall's group, the South Africans and another group led by Scott Fischer (played as a nonchalant surfer-dude by Jake Gyllenhaal) are all targeting the summit on the same day, and this leads to a hazardous bottlenecking on the upper sections of the mountain. And thus the scene is set for a tragedy that unfolds in the most impossible conditions imaginable. As Hall presciently warns his charges early on: "Human beings aren't built to function at the cruising height of a 747. Up there, your body is literally dying."
Let's get this out there: the photography of this film is astonishing. If you want to know what it is like to climb Everest to the summit; to understand the complexities of its faces, ridges and cols, then this film delivers for you. The camera carefully takes you from the madness of Kathmandu to the harum-scarum runway at Lukla, and on up to the monasteries of the Pangboche Glacier; through Base Camp, up the Khumbu Icefall; up to the South Col, along the traverse to the Hillary Step, up the step itself and on to the top of the earth. The geography of Everest, normally so massive and incomprehensible, becomes a vivid and vital part of the drama here.
If you get the chance, see it in 3D. There's an early moment in which the camera passes through a gorge, passing the hikers as they cross a rope bridge bedecked with prayer flags - and it honest-to-goodness puts your heart in your mouth. Later, as the team scales ladders across the seracs of the Khumbu Icefall, you'll feel it's your very own feet that are setting out across each ludicrous chasm, rather than those of Beck Weathers. And higher up, your toes will curl involuntarily as you bid to keep them away from the 20,000-ft chasms that are a whisker away from the climbers' feet.
Is it quite as successful when it comes to the human drama of the story? Partially. It certainly creates a fantastic hero in Rob Hall, who cares deeply for his charges and is full of sage advice right up to the point where he considers breaking his own golden rule out of sympathy for one of them. Clarke plays him with the straightest bat, a man in love with the mountains but confused by the monster he has created. And Brolin is good value as the bluff, macho "let me ask you about your mountaineering experience so I can work out if I'm better than you" Weathers.
But Gyllenhaal's slacker-generation Fischer seems oddly one-note (he's one notch up from those base-jumping goons in Cliffhanger), and while the film gets close to examining why these people do what they do, it seems to shy away from real answers. And it seems to suggest that the evil of Everest's commercialisation is somehow offset by the heroism and good intentions of those who have engineered it.
I was also slightly dismayed by the lack of focus on the Sherpas; every hero in this film is a white First Worlder, be they Kiwi, American or Russian. Even a Nepalese helicopter pilot, who attempts the highest flight ever in the vicinity of Everest in atrocious conditions, goes un-named and plays second fiddle to the special effects during the rather hurried final chapter.
That said, I won't be doing what some sneery reviewers from the Guardian and Telegraph have been doing, which is to diss the movie for a lack of dramatic twists, and for the portrayal of the three main female characters - Base Camp commander Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), Beck Weathers' wife Peach (Robin Wright) and Hall's pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley - who, it must be said, is much too Keira Knightley to be convincing as the tough climber Hall married). True, Watson spends a lot of time talking anxiously into a radio and looking worried, but to criticise the film for making the women 'dull' and 'whiny' (as the Guardian has) seems unfair. This is what happened. Would they prefer the film-makers had jazzed things up a bit with a shock twist that never happened, or a fictional superwoman who wasn't there? Frankly, I'm glad they didn't. There's too much of that in so-called biopics as it is (don't get me started on the liberties taken with the Enigma codebreakers in The Imitation Game).
And when the real shocks come, they hit as sharply as the tiny shards of blizzard ice that lacerate the climbers high up on the South Col. If you've seen the trailer, you may already have seen the film's 'money shot' in which Hall looks down upon the rising storm as it consumes the mountain; it's a man facing an impossible bigness and terror while confined upon a tiny space. It's amazing how quickly the surface area of Everest, a thing so huge, is reduced to just a tiny, vulnerable ledge as nature's whim strikes. I don't need a clever narrative twist in order to be stunned by that.
Is Everest a classic mountain movie? Certainly it is one that anyone with an interest in mountains will talk about. And it's truer than Vertical Limit, more in-the-moment than Touching the Void and just better in every way than The Eiger Sanction (sorry Clint). So by that rationale, yes, it deserves its place in the mountain movie hall of fame. How much of it is fact and how much conjecture? That's a different question, and I wonder at what point its desire to cast almost everyone in a benevolent light (except the South Africans) negates its power as an objective critique of a failure of mountaineering. Poor decisions were made; forecasts were spun towards the positive; in some cases ego, hubris and/or sentiment trumped common sense; but the film rather glosses over these points in its desire to honour the people involved.
So it has its flaws, but it takes you to the top of the world, and then into the depths of despair - and not many films do that. It looks incredible - I lost count of the amount of times I wondered "how the blazes did they film that?" And ultimately, it makes you want to know more - about the mountain, about the people, about the weather that wreaked this havoc upon them. About the why and the how.
I'd suggest that makes it a very good mountain movie indeed.
* Everest is on general release from Friday 18th September. Find the trailer and more info at www.everestmovie.com #everestmovie