Global star power is often enough to get a movie made; a larger-than-life celebrity is enough to attract and audience, and thus a film is created around this magnetic centre.
Everest is such a movie, but instead of some charismatic lead, the main draw is a mountain, the largest on earth, majestic and deadly. That is not to say its grizzled manly men providing the heart of the film aren’t worthy, but up against a setting that is required viewing on the biggest possible screen, it’s easy to push them aside.
Based on Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which documented a fateful climb of Mount Everest in 1996 (Michael Kelly plays him in the film, and spoiler alert, he survives to write the tale), Everest triumphs in scale and tension, enough so that everything else doesn’t matter as much.
Still, a cast that includes Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, and Sam Worthington playing hardy mountaineers places plenty of humanity and humility in the face of the power of nature. Some are guides, some are clients, some have women at home worried (including Keira Knightley), and some have modest lives that look to this adventure for purpose.
Director Balthasar Kormakur knows how long to dwell on the personal stories of each – there ends up being a lot of phone calls to home, with news oscillating between the optimistic and the grave. While that seems like the obligatory human factor to include in a film about survival and death, there are two more emotions that rise up to make Everest more compelling.
The first, of course, is selfishness. In 1996, climbing Everest has become an industry, and an overcrowded mountain means more dangers: too many people trying to ascend on the same day with limited resources and a narrow window. The second is less obvious, and would be easy to dismiss as melodrama were the film not in fact based on a true account. That would be selflessness, spurred by the question of whether it’s more important to make the summit if it means dying or to live having almost made it.
These are things to think about after the film, because there is barely a moment to pause once the climb begins. Well, even before it begins. It’s an exhausting, harrowing spectacle, far from perfect but certainly unforgettable. The opportunity is not wasted to place the audience up into the sky, amid wild storms, massive drops, and instant death lurking at any moment.