Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense peril, disturbing images)
Why are some humans born with a suicidal impulse to defy the limitations of what is naturally possible? To traverse strange oceans in search of new continents? To rocket into outer space? To push a body to the brink of death on the summit of the world’s highest mountain?
You won’t find more than pat answers to this question in “Everest,” a reenactment of the ill-fated 1996 expedition that became the subject of John Krakauer’s book, “Into Thin Air.” (The film moved into wide release Friday after a limited debut in IMAX theaters.)
“Everest” isn’t based on Krakauer’s best-selling account — the author recently slammed the movie as “total bull” — although he is depicted as a character in the film, played by Michael Kelly of “House of Cards.”
Writers William Nicholson (“Unbroken”) and Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) based their script on various sources, conducting their own research into one of the deadliest incidents in Everest’s history. The film is well acted and technically impressive — especially in soaring, rumbling IMAX — but lacks a definitive point of view, perhaps in an attempt not to point fingers or take sides,
The absence of a singular perspective results in a frustratingly vague cinematic experience. The confusion is compounded by the fact that the actors portraying the film’s ensemble of unlucky climbers are often obscured by oxygen masks, goggles and hoods, making it difficult to distinguish between them in many scenes.
Keira Knightley, as the pregnant and anxious wife of one of the doomed mountaineers, and Emily Watson, as a motherly base camp manager, remain goggle-less, not to mention snug and dry in cozy sweaters, as they lend emotional support in a handful of teary-eyed scenes.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has recruited an excellent cast to piece together the puzzle of went what so dreadfully wrong during that infamous two-day period in May ’96.
After a pair of lackluster performances in the equally lackluster “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Terminator Genisys,” I had all but given up on Jason Clarke, who stars here as Rob Hall, an expert mountaineer from New Zealand whose company, Adventure Consultants, ferries even the unlikeliest of amateur climbers safely to and from Everest’s summit.
Hall is as close as the film gets to a main character and Clarke portrays him as an all-around decent guy, an interpretation that could have been unbearably cheesy in the hands of a lesser actor. Instead, we just really like this guy.
The guide is preparing to shepherd a group of amateurs of varying experience levels who have paid him $65,000 a piece to turn their dreams of reaching the summit into reality. Kormakur takes his time introducing the members of this ragtag group as they hobnob at base camp.
Among them are Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a seasoned adventurer looking to notch her seventh major summit; Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a doctor from Texas who has the jitters but later reveals himself to be one of the toughest s.o.b.s alive; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman desperate to complete his second attempt at the summit; and Krakauer, a journalist whose coveted media presence produces some performance anxiety in Hall and his crew.
According to the film, Hall’s success inspired dozens of imitators, leading to a commercial boom on Everest in the late ’90s. With hundreds of climbers jockeying for position as they vie to reach the summit during rare windows of good weather, a spirit of reckless competition prevails.
In the movie, this potentially dangerous development is embodied by a friendly rivalry between Hall and competitor Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a laid-back American who sports a carefree man bun, sunbathes half naked at base camp, and warms up at night by guzzling hard liquor straight from the bottle.
Gyllenhaal’s fictionalized take on Fischer is one of the film’s more colorful elements, but due to clumsy editing and/or a lack of time, the fate of the party-hearty American remains frustratingly obscure. This is clearly a man who knew what he was doing, so some of his more questionable decisions don’t add up.
There are many other things the audience is left to guess at as the film methodically runs through the events leading up to the disaster, sparked by a bemusing mixture of human error (overcrowding, half-empty oxygen bottles, missed turn-around times), natural forces (an unexpected and devastating storm), and cruel coincidence, whereby experienced mountaineers perished helplessly while less experienced ones suddenly revived.
There’s no shortage of human drama as a husband and wife share their last conversation via radio and climbers admit they’re unwilling to forfeit their lives on the off chance they might save another. But so many questions are left unanswered, it leaves one longing for a straightforward documentary. Just the facts, please.
Filmed in the Italian Alps and on location in Nepal with a hefty budget of $65 million, “Everest” is by far the biggest project tackled by Kormakur (“2 Guns”). On a technical level, it’s a formidable achievement. The film’s depiction of life at base camp and beyond and of the harrowing challenges encountered by those brave, or foolhardy enough, to attempt the summit feels authentic, while vertigo-inducing shots of rickety ladders traversing gaping crevasses put the audience smack in the middle of Everest’s ruthless, bitterly cold environment.
The large-screen format ensures moviegoers experience everything, from the thunderous vibration of of an avalanche to the violent frenzy of a snowstorm, deep in their bones.
Kormakur vividly illustrates the excruciating physical hardships suffered by climbers — frostbite, altitude sickness, snow blindness, cerebral edema — even on the simpler expeditions designed to acclimatize their bodies to thin air and frigid temperatures.
It takes almost until the movie’s third act for the really gripping suspense to kick in, but it finally does and with gusto. A tenuous helicopter rescue is a particularly white-knuckle moment.
What “Everest” is missing, though, is the bravura precision of someone like Paul Greengrass, director of “Captain Phillips,” “United 93,” and “Bloody Sunday.”
In re-creating some of the great tragedies and near-tragedies that haunt us, Greengrass employs documentarian accuracy and bold narrative license to weave the impossible illusion that we have the whole picture.
Watching “Everest,” on the other hand, is like stumbling through a blizzard of bewilderment.