This is the kind of movie movies were invented for: big, visceral, and intense, a heart-stopping adventure that has you catching your breath and gasping in shock as it takes you places most of us will never get to so as to engage in the sort of life-threatening thrills that, paradoxically, remind us that we are alive. That’s an argument that safety-minded homebodies like me scoff at when risk-takers make it, but Everest makes you understand it deep in your gut.
And this is true even though Everest is the story of what had been the deadliest climbing season on the mountain until the 2014 and 2015 avalanches. The events of 1996, which led to the deaths of eight people, are disputed in some of their details by survivors, yet generally well known to the public, thanks to adventure writer Jon Krakauer’s best-selling first-person account Into Thin Air — he was on Everest in ’96 on assignment for Outside magazine — as well as the 1997 American TV movie of the same name based on that book. Plus there was also an IMAX team on that mountain that year, shooting what would become the 1998 IMAX documentary Everest, which is still the highest-grossing IMAX documentary ever. (Krakauer is a fairly major character in the ensemble here, played by House of Cards actor Michael Kelly. The IMAX team is mentioned but do not appear in any significant way.)
What happened in 1996 is this: Everest, once the domain of only the most elite climbers and the most daring of daredevils, had gotten commercialized. Outfits like New Zealand’s Adventure Consultants — headed up by Rob Hall (played here by Jason Clarke: Terminator Genisys, Child 44) — and Seattle-based Mountain Madness — led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal: Southpaw, Nightcrawler) — were taking paying customers up to the top of the world. The fact that some of their clients didn’t really have the requisite mountain-climbing experience for the task is likely secondary, if looking for blame for the disaster, to the fact that there were just too many damned people trying to get to summit during what are fairly narrow windows of opportunity, when the weather looks good and is likely to hold. This year, 1996, is when “traffic jams” at the very highest point on the planet began.
It’s probably a sad fact that this movie is going to make things even worse on Everest: this is a spectacular experience that may well make some viewers hungry for the real thing. (Though, ironically, we will likely never again see the mountain as relatively uncrowded as it appears here.) We meet Hall and some of his clients — including Doug Hansen (John Hawkes: Life of Crime, Contagion), who is making a second attempt at the summit after bad weather scuttled him the year before; Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), who appears at first to have more money than sense; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori: Torchwood), who, at 47, is trying to set a record for the oldest woman to reach the top of Everest — on their long trip through Kathmandu and up to base camp… which, at 17,000 feet, is an achievement in itself. Director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, Contraband) finds the most gorgeous vistas along the way: the trekkers passing over a narrow rope bridge above a deep mountain crevice is dizzying and breathtaking, and they haven’t even gotten to the amazing bit yet. (The film was shot partly in Nepal, including at the real Everest base camp.)
See Everest in IMAX 3D if you’re going to see it at all for the most enrapturing you-are-there feeling. The pain and the effort that goes into getting to the top of the mountain — so high up that ever step is killing you — is vivid and acute… but then to actually reach the summit, as we do with several characters, is a thing of immense awe and pleasure: There is nowhere else to go from here. There is no more Up. The script, by William Nicholson (Unbroken, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Simon Beaufoy (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), features a few moments in which the climbers discuss why they are doing something so dangerous, so expensive, and, some might say, so pointless. And their explanations are surprisingly compelling: Weathers finds relief from crushing depression; Hansen is motivated by the schoolchildren who helped sponsor his trip whom he inspires to imagine big things for themselves. But it’s the clear exhilaration that the film sings out at the top of the mountain that says everything that needs to be said. “Because it’s there” suddenly makes a lot of sense to those of us down here. (Those “down here” in the film include Keira Knightley [The Imitation Game, Laggies] and Robin Wright [House of Cards, A Most Wanted Man] as the stay-at-home yet supportive-from-afar wives of, respectively, Hall and Weathers, and Emily Watson [A Royal Night Out, Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism] as the manager of Adventure Consultants’ base camp. But they already get it.)
This is not a detective story looking to lay blame for the disaster that happened on the mountain that year — answers to why some mistakes were made will never be known, because those mistakes killed those with the answers — and in fact it’s remarkably generous toward those who might fairly deserve some blame, by ascribing mostly good intentions to some bad decisions. And while this is not an intellectual examination of what drives people to do apparently crazy things, there are unspoken questions and matters for debate running through the undercurrent of the film: How do we best and most fairly police access to wild places? might be the biggest and most important one. The unspoken answer of Everest is that this is something we do need to figure out, because the only motivation we need to look to is this: Climbing a big ol’ mountain that might kill you along the way is ultimately a very human thing to do, and we are going to do it. There’s no way we are not going to do this. We will push ourselves to the very edges of human endurance because we can. If you never appreciated that before, Everest is here to show you the truth of it.