Sunday, October 11, 2015


Alternate Title:  Places You Will Not Find Me

One sentence synopsis:     Legendary New Zealand Mountaineer Rob Hall guides a group of paying clients to the top of Mount Everest just as a raging storm descends on the mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  I first read Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air", an account of the 1996 Everest Disaster, nearly twenty years ago, and have re-read it several times since. It's a fascinating work, detailing the lives and deaths of a group of people whose obsessions frankly puzzle me, mountaineers, willing to put up with agony in untold quantities and the constant risk of horrible death, simply to stand on top of a mountain in the middle of a part of the Earth designed seemingly to kill anyone who enters it. Though Everest is now climbed by hundreds of people a year, enough to produce traffic jams on the summit approach, the mountain still kills one in five climbers who ascend above base camp, and the list of highly-experienced, indeed world-famous climbers that have died on its slopes is long and august. In some ways, therefore, it is surprising that it took this long for someone, in this case Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, to put a big Hollywood movie together based on the incident. And not just any movie, but a big, sweeping IMAX 3D movie. Normally I couldn't care less about either 3D or IMAX, but big landscape-movies like this are an exception in my mind, and I decided to splurge.

But forget the visuals, let's talk about the guy from Terminator Genesys!

Yes, Jason Clarke, who was good in Zero Dark Thirty, and has spent the intervening time between that movie and this one trying to convince me by any means he can that his performance there was a fluke and that he actually sucks. It's not that Clarke is a bad actor, it's that he has no sense for what movies he should be doing and what ones stink on ice. I asked Mr. Clarke in my Genesys review to fire his agent and start reading his own scripts, and... well maybe he did, because this is the best I've seen out of him in a couple of years. His character, Rob Hall, the leader of the main guided expedition to Everest, isn't especially nuanced, a dedicated family man and expert mountaineer who is there to do his job, and does it, but Clarke manages to at least bring a bit of humanity to a character that could only have been something of a cypher, given the production's lack of support from the survivors of the actual disaster. A better job (from a better actor) comes from Josh Brolin, playing Beck Weathers, a cardiologist from Texas who hires Hall to drag him up and down the mountain. There isn't a vast amount for Brolin to do with the character, but he's an entertaining presence with folksy Texan ribbing for his fellow climbers. Others present include other actors I enjoy the chance to see, such as John Hawkes (of Deadwood) as Doug Hansen, a mailman on his third attempt to climb a mountain that has come to rule his mind, and Emily Watson (of many things), as Helen Winton, the base camp controller, whose job is more or less to sit on a radio talking to people high on the mountain who are dying in the storm...

... okay, maybe I'm not making a great case for the good stuff here. Let's try something else.

Everest, for whatever faults it may have, is a beautiful film, shot by whatever means with lush, realistic photography, expansively photographing the mountain and its surroundings. In all conditions, calm, storm-laden, or anywhere in between, the mountain is shown off in all its terrible, lethal beauty, and the sequences wherein our heroes are waylaid by the storm of the century look frigid enough to freeze the audience in their seats. I particularly appreciated the little touches on the way to the mountain, the overview of the gorgeous trek that leads to base camp, the stops at local monasteries to receive blessings from the Nepalese lamas, the tent city of Base Camp, and the generally primitive conditions that prevail there and elsewhere. I've long imagined Everest and its approaches, thanks generally to Krakauer's book, and this film, if nothing else, cured all need to experience the mountain further. One can only watch people falling to their death or being horribly mauled with grotesque frostbite in the middle of a hurricane-force ice storm and be thankful that one does not share the obsession that led them to seek their deaths in a god-forsaken place such as that on the roof of the world.

Things Havoc disliked:  If it feels like I haven't said much about Everest until this point, it's because this sort of movie is one of the hardest sorts to fit into my usual structure of likes and dislikes. And the reason for that is that this movie isn't really about anything.

I mean that's not fair, it's about the 1996 Everest disaster, and it quite faithfully shows that, but... at the same time that's really the problem here. The film is about a group of people who go up a mountain and do not come down it. We all know (at least if we've read the book or heard of the incident) that the movie is going to consist of this, which renders it quite difficult to wring any kind of actual narrative out of the film. People go up the mountain and die, as we know they are going to, as we expect that they will, and there's no real surprises to be had, or even question as to the direction the story will take along the way. I'm reminded, in a way, of the George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg film The Perfect Storm (a movie that also featured John Hawkes, now that I think about it), which was also about a group of men who went out into bad weather and all died, and also had the difficulty of trying to make that story interesting to an audience that knew they were all doomed. The Perfect Storm managed it by using the fact that nobody knew precisely what happened to the men in question to speculate on what their final hours might have been like, thus telling a story of courage and adventure and heroism in the face of terrible odds. Everest, meanwhile, has to stick directly to the known facts of the case, which are that many of the men in question died while narrating their own actions into satellite phones. As such, we really are just sitting there waiting for people to die, in a circumstance (freezing to death without oxygen) that prevents them from even making last-ditch heroic efforts to save themselves.

And even if you ignore the plot in favor of just watching actors act and filmmakers film, there's just a lot of bloat to this film. Consider Jake Gyllenhall, whom I've finally come around on, who here plays Scott Fisher, leader of the rival Mountain Madness guided ascent group. Fisher, who also died on the mountain, has no role in this film, other than to have Hall occasionally ask him if he's okay before getting sick and dying of hypothermia on the mountain. Having read the book, I know who Scott Fisher was, but had I not done so, I would have been utterly confused as to why he was even in the movie. He ascends the mountain and dies largely without having anything to do with anyone else, nor does his death or presence prior to it affect the ongoing tragedy around him save for adding another number to the casualty list. But if I can't figure out what Gyllenhall is doing there, I certainly can't account for the presence of Robin Wright or Keira Knightley, both serious actresses, whose roles as the wives of various dying climbers consist entirely of sitting at home and looking worried or tearful in proportion with the amount of information they have as to the status of their significant others.

Final thoughts:   I don't want to give the impression that I hated Everest, or was bored by it, for the teeth-chatteringly awful conditions that climbers are subjected to on Everest, even without unseasonably horrid storms brewing up from the bowels of Hell, certainly prevents that. But the base fact is that the story that Kormakur and his crew are attempting to tell here is simply not a very narratively interesting one, turning instead into one of my least favorite sorts of movies, the Death-Watch thriller. Made at a much higher quality than most Death Watch movies, Everest manages to retain its interest during its run time, but it manages nonetheless to be one of the more ephemeral movies I've seen in a good long while. Still, I can't say that I disliked the experience of watching Everest. I just don't think it's a movie I'm likely to spend any brainpower thinking about ever again.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  Matt Damon gets his ass to Mars.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...