Early in the new disaster drama film Everest, journalist and climber Jon Krakauer (portrayed by Michael Kelly), poses questions to fellow adventurers while huddled around a table at Mount Everest base camp. “Why do you do it? Why climb Everest?” After a gravid pause, the climbers respond in boisterous unison with English mountaineer George Mallory’s famous declaration: “Because it’s there!”
Asked about their reasoning behind making Everest, Universal Studios executives might have given a similar answer. In terms of commercial potential, Everest is a no-brainer. Pen a tense script based on a true story, put a team of Hollywood A-listers in mortal danger, and watch the money pile up. Given this ready-made drama of the fatal 1996 climbing expedition, it is surprising that the big-budget cash-in has taken so long to arrive.
At its best, Everest is a work of incredible spectacle. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography is stately and beautiful; emphasizing scale to dazzling effect. Everest was shot in IMAX, and it’s almost impossible to overstate the sensory impact of the film when viewed in the suggested format. Everest’s best trait is the ability to viscerally involve the audience. When the Himalayan wind whistles and howls, we feel the chill. When the climbers traverse a bottomless crevasse, we feel our own stomachs tighten and turn.
As an experience, Everest is easy to recommend. Assessed purely as a narrative; however, it’s strangely forgettable. With the exception of some ineffective editing near the conclusion, each of Everest’s major elements is solid. The effects are understated, the performances are strong, and the screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) is brawny and uncomplicated.
Ultimately, what hampers Everest is a lack of thematic ambition. Put simply, this story has been told before, and in better, more illuminating ways. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur takes a commendably unsentimental approach to subject matter which could so easily stray into the realm of melodrama, but in attempting to maintain realism and accuracy, he fails to imbue the film with any discernible tone or stance. The result is that Everest vacillates between old-school disaster flick and shoddy character study.
The 1996 disaster is a peak we’ve climbed before, most notably in Krakauer’s controversial best-selling book Into Thin Air and in several well-received documentaries. Outside of its technical achievement, Everest offers no new insight into the men and women who fought for survival on the mountain, or the systematic failures that led to the tragedy.
Like modern expeditions to the world’s tallest mountain, Everest is an exercise in circumscribed achievement – an impressive feat, but one wholly devoid of revelation. The venture guarantees unique and visceral thrills to those willing to pay the price, but can’t synthesize the sense of true discovery that might have made it great.