ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the founder of Adventure Consultants, is leading eight clients and two additional guides on an expedition to the top of Mount Everest. Though his price for a guided summit – $65,000 – is quite steep, his record of success and reliable reputation still attracts clients, among them pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Outside journalist John Krakauer (Michael Kelly).

Due to the increased commercialization of Everest climbing, Rob’s group runs into various other expedition groups fighting to reach the peak first during the two-week window in May when conditions aren’t as fierce. Though the increased traffic poses a potential danger for the climbers, Hall nevertheless decides to have his group work alongside Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the leader of Mountain Madness. The worsening weather adds another potential threat to their endeavor, but after the storm escalates into a full-scale blizzard, any potential threat has now become a fight for survival.

This week has presented us with two monsters at the cinemas. The first was Whitey Bulger, and now we have the beast that is Mount Everest, the natural wonder with a view from the top of the world unlike any other and conditions that can turn cold and merciless. Reaching the peak of the mountain is not impossible; just ask Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Thousands of others have also successfully scaled Everest since Hillary and Norgay first climbed Everest, but the number of successful climbs doesn’t change just how daunting and even life-threatening it is to take on the world’s highest mountain. If it’s not the high altitude that gets you, then perhaps the harsh temperature, freezing wind (speeds of 175 mph were recorded in 2004) or radiation exposure will.

In May 1996, two climbing expeditions felt the full force of Everest’s fury. The tragic event, known simply as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, took the lives of eight climbers, making it the deadliest day on the mountain at the time. Those that miraculously survived, namely Beck Weathers, suffered life-altering injuries (Beck’s right arm, all four fingers and thumb on his left hand, parts of both feet and his nose were amputated), and the very least were left incredibly shaken by the traumatic experience.

Directed by Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns) and featuring an all-star cast, Everest is a recreation of the disaster that took place nearly 20 years ago. Like any Hollywood-ized take on a historical tragedy, especially those that revolve around a man-versus-nature showdown, the characters seem to come in second place to the awe-inspiring spectacle of nature’s deadly force. Still, even with its slow setup of having to introduce what seems to be every A-list actor and their brother, thanks to some impressive cinematography and a talented cast, Everest becomes a gripping disaster tale that’s part fight for survival and part harrowing tragedy.

It’s tricky business for a filmmaker to get viewers emotionally invested in these characters’ tragedies when their juggling so many of them. Just as increased traffic on Everest can jeopardize a climb, increased traffic in your screenplay can jeopardize character development. More so, similar to Into the Wild, it’s even trickier to generate emotional investment with characters that put themselves into perilous situations knowing what they were getting into. Not that your heart doesn’t go out to the victims and their families, but it’s unfortunate that mistakes made during this disaster could’ve been avoided.

But if you’re gonna have overcrowding, it’s always best to have some of the very best at your disposal who can seize the day with what little that they have. These aren’t career revelations or anything, but it’s nice that even if the smaller roles don’t come with much to offer, having the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Kelly, Robin Wright, Emily Watson and Keira Knightley bring a little more to the table with what little time they have helps.

Those required to do the heavy lifting and the ones viewers will care about the most are Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin and John Hawkes. Clarke is the kind of actor whose name you won’t recognize but whose face you immediately will. I became an instant fan of his since his Oscar-worthy performance in Zero Dark Thirty, but since then he’s been extremely hit-or-miss with strong turns in Lawless and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes coming in between wasted efforts in The Great Gatsby, White House Down and Terminator Genisys (a movie I didn’t hate, but he was by far the weakest link). Clarke gives one of the strongest performances of his career here as the driven yet cautious Rob Hall. Wisely not aiming to turn Hall into a deified sacrificial hero, Clarke’s portrayal is respectful, bringing great warmth and empathy to him, and sharing scenes with Keira Knightley that are both touching and heartbreaking without feeling saccharine or manipulative.

Josh Brolin elevates his thinly written (the Texan arrogance is played up a tad too much at first) with one of his finer performances as survivor Beck Weathers. The underrated John Hawkes (who was criminally overlooked by the Academy for his performance in 2012’s The Sessions) also turns in fine work as mailman Doug Hansen, who gives the most meaningful of all answers to the question “Why?” other than the predictable as clockwork “Because it’s there!” (once ascribed to Edmund Hillary but was actually quoted by George Mallory).

No surprise, however, the true star amidst all the A-listers is Everest herself, and Kormakur puts together a stunningly extravagant display of the triumphs and dangers of this journey. Admittedly, between the larger-than-life scenery and special effects, it does turn into a game of “Who’s who?” on the mountain. Eventually I ended up going by a color-coded system to keep track (Clarke was the red coat, Hawkes was the yellow coat, and so on). Nitpick aside, the visual experience is quite grand and the combination of first-rate CGI and Salvatore Totino’s breathtaking on-location cinematography effectively captures both the speechless beauty and humbling terror of the mountain.

Everest doesn’t dig as deep as it could’ve into the mindsets and motives of those willing to risk their lives on an endeavor notoriously known for killing one in every four climbers, but as a grand achievement in technical production, it succeeds. That, and despite what missteps the script may have made in terms of character depth, a strong powerhouse cast provides enough humanity and emotion to each of their roles to ultimately make for an imperfect yet tense and compelling tale of those who conquered and those who tragically were conquered by one of Earth’s greatest wonders.

I give Everest a B+ (★★★).

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