Everest (2015)

Everest first published by Sight & Sound, November 2015

Review: “Because it’s there.”

This, reportedly, was George Mallory’s laconic response, pitched somewhere between jocular dismissal and rugged existentialism, to the question, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”. Mallory disappeared, less than 250m from Everest’s summit, in 1924. In Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest, these three words are knowingly reechoed by a team on a commercial ascent of Everest after Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), the journalist embedded with them, rather self-consciously gets round to posing the same inevitable yet unanswerable question. It is 1996 – some three years before Mallory’s corpse would finally be discovered, frozen and mummified – and as the film is drawn from various versions (including the real Krakauer’s article and subsequent novel, which also inspired the 1997 telemovie Into Thin Air: Death on Everest) of true events, we already know that this expedition too is doomed, and will leave more bodies to become part of the beautiful, forbidding mountainscape that’s there.

Different characters try to articulate a better answer. For the team’s only female member, Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), Everest is the last of the ‘Seven Summits’ remaining for her to reach (“That’s not an answer”, complains Krakauer). For experienced team leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) mountaineering is a lifelong passion, but also a business, as he had, just four years earlier with his company Adventure Consultants, pioneered commercial guided climbs of Everest, and was now having to contend with an overcrowded mountain martketplace (“like a fucking Walmart”, only with deadlier queues), as other entrepreneurial climbers like Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) vie for valuable slots on the dangerous ascent. Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a blue-collar worker making his second attempt with Rob, wants to inspire younger generations with the realisation that “a regular guy can follow impossible dreams.” And for pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), on whose 2000 book Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay is partially based, mountain climbing is an escape from the “big black cloud” (of depression) in his middle-class Texan home life, and an activity that makes him feel “reborn” – terms which will become ironised and inverted as all too real dark clouds and miraculous resurrections will become the key parts of Beck’s own improbable-but-true survival story.

Indeed, tragic ironies abound in this epic docudrama of birth and death, of hubris and humility, where high ambition, human error and elemental extremity combine into a perfect storm. Set in the closest place to the heavens where it is still possible to have one’s feet on the ground, naturally Everest is a grand spectacle (available in IMAX and 3D versions), framing fragile human lives against the elevating scale of the Himalayan peaks (the actual shoot was divided between the foothills of Everest, the Italian Alps, and various studios). Yet dealing once again, as he did in The Deep (Djúpið, 2012), with death and survival in extremis, Kormákur also focuses on the lifelines (and phonelines) through which these people with their heads in the clouds are linked to the earthier, more domestic concerns that they have left behind. It is just a pity that, in docu-dramatising five lives lost, the film does not find room, even in the coda’s factual recap, to acknowledge the three climbers from a separate team of Indo-Tibetan Border Police who also died in their descent that same day. Such an omission smacks of snow blindness, if not of total whiteout.

Synopsis: 1996. Leaving his pregnant wife Jan behind in New Zealand, Rob Hall, head of Adventure Consultants, leads a commercial ascent of Everest, with a team that includes Outside journalist Jon Krakauer, mailman Doug Hansen, pathologist Beck Weathers, and businesswoman Yasuko Namba, as well as Rob’s fellow guides and basecamp crew. During months of acclimatising his team in base camp, Rob notices how overcrowded the mountain is with different commercial climbers, and decides to team up with Scott Fischer’s rival outfit Mountain Madness. On 10 May, the teams ascend from Camp 4. Snowblind, Beck has to stop on the Balcony. Most of the others reach the summit, delayed along the way by a lack of fitted ropes. On his way down, Rob agrees to turn back and help Doug, struggling, to the top. A very powerful storm strikes. Some, including Jon, make it back to camp. Doug, Yasuko, Scott, and – heroically returning to help Rob – assistant guide Andy ‘Harold’ Harris, all die. After making satellite-relayed calls to Jan, Rob also dies. Left for dead, severely frostbitten Beck returns to camp, and home to his Texan family.

Anton Bitel