Thursday, September 24, 2015

'Everest' review

The disaster movie is a dying breed in Hollywood, and the true-story disaster film is even more rare at this point. And despite brilliant visual filmmaking and a cast that tries its best to make it work, Everest will not bring that genre back to life. Technically awe-inspiring, especially in IMAX 3D, but dramatically empty and uninvolving, Everest moves at a sluggish pace through its tale of misery and death, culminating with a conclusion that beats you into submission so hard with its special effects that you don't get much out of its story. Director Baltasar Kormakur handles the visual sequences well, and there are a few moments of true emotional poignancy from Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley, but this overlong adventure tale (it feels like 3 hours, but only runs for 2) has a script that is a consistent letdown, resulting in a laborious and tiresome flick that never lives up to its potential.

Based on the tragic true-story of a group of climbers who were caught in a terrible storm back in 1996, Everest aims to show us how and why several men risked their lives to conquer one of the most dangerous natural sights in the world. As the story begins, we set the stage with Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), climber extraordinaire and businessman, who has made a living off of taking people to the summit of Mt. Everest and getting them back safely. This year, he's competing with the smart and somewhat reckless Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) for the money of climbers and especially for the attention of journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly). Climbers arrive in March and Hall's group for the season contains Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and more, all of whom are regular guys with one goal in mind- climb the world's tallest mountain.

After months of training, Hall, the climbers, and his team (Emily Watson, Elizabeth Debicki, Sam Worthington) begin to work their way up the mountain with the goal of reaching the summit on May 10, the prime window for climbers. Hall and the men face harsh elements- illness, bitter temperatures, thin air- but as they work their way up, they form a bond and become more and more determined to reach the top of the mountain. They reach the top of the mountain successfully (at least a large majority of them do), but during their return trip, disaster strikes. A large storm hits, killing several climbers and injuring many others, leaving the remaining men and women to band together to survive the worst disaster in Everest's history.

The failure of Everest has nothing to do with a lack of material or a dearth of visual punch. This movie has both of those things in droves. What Everest lacks is discipline, storytelling control and moviemaking pizzazz. Despite all of the sensory flash of this so-called IMAX "experience," Everest struggles to ever find a consistent pace, a momentum that carries it from scene to scene. Most of the movie consists of moving from one point on the mountain to another, with little drama or flash to go along with it. And when the action hits and the film gets intense, it's still pretty boring to watch; in fact, I'd go as far as to call Everest a miserable watch. I know that the events that form the basis of the film aren't exactly happy, but there have been films that have used tragic material to create a compelling story for the audience. Everest merely shows you what happened- there's no attempt to really create much drama between the climbers, or to create any real "movie magic." It makes for visceral filmmaking, but it's a pretty tedious narrative to watch.

There's a great moment in Mr. Plinkett's Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace review where he talks about the lack of a central protagonist in the film. It's not Anakin, it's not Qui Gon, it's not Obi-Wan and it's not Padme, so who is it? Everest suffers from this same fundamental protagonist issue. The ensemble cast is full of talented actors who aren't given much to work with at all, and there's not one central character for us to connect with. Jason Clarke's Rob Hall seems like the film's leader at some points, but there are other stretches that disconnect him completely from the film. Same goes for Josh Brolin and John Hawkes, and even Jake Gyllenhaal in some stretches- they all seem like the main character of the film, but Everest never latches onto a single person in the cast. It jumps around from character to character, presumably with the goal of creating the most vivid picture of what really went down. But unfortunately, that doesn't work and the film just ends up being extremely overcrowded.

That's not to say that the acting in Everest is bad, per say. The stars do pretty solid work with what they're given and occasionally, what they're given is quite spectacular. There's a scene in the late goings of the film with Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley that will probably go down as the best scene in a bad movie this year. For a film that feels so emotionally (and literally) cold the rest of the time, it's this odd moment of warmth between two characters with a tangible, palpable connection. Clarke and Knightley elevate the material to another level, and it's impressive.

Gyllenhaal also does a fantastic job of playing the young and brash Scott Fischer, while John Hawkes' Doug Hansen is one of the few characters with whom I felt a particularly strong connection. Josh Brolin and Robin Wright have a few decent moments as well, though none that are quite as mesmerizing as those from Clarke and Knightley. And yet, the cast list doesn't even end there. Sam Worthington pops up from time to time as the team's scout, Emily Watson has some good scenes as Helen Wilton (base camp manager), Michael Kelly stars as "In Thin Air" author Jon Krakauer, and Elizabeth Debicki is there too, but to be honest, I had no idea she was in this movie until I read the cast list yesterday.

All of these actors are talented and they give committed performances, but the overall theme is that there's just too many people that director Baltasar Kormakur tries to shove into the story. And beyond just the name-brand actors that I mentioned, there are literally tons of other characters that pop in and out on occasion- the team of Sherpas, Hall's assistants, South African climbers, Japanese climbers, Fischer's assistants, etc. It's just too much for one two hour film to handle. If Kormakur had aimed for a vignette style approach that mixed together several different perspectives on the events, maybe this expansive cast could have worked. But Everest goes a very traditional route, and the sheer number of characters becomes problematic at that point.

But Everest's ultimate problem is momentum, or more specifically, a lack thereof. For what has been marketed and pitched as a disaster/action/adventure/thriller, Everest is insanely slow. The characters walk. And they walk. They stop and eat and share "climber ties." They walk some more. They fall down from a lack of oxygen. They talk about the magnitude of Everest. And then they walk some more. This goes on for nearly the entire runtime, with only a few moments of dramatic tension here and there. Even the ending of the film, with all of its terrifying visuals, suffers from an abundance of sitting around and not doing much of anything. If Everest had a more focused approach, a better screenplay with more lively dialogue, more developed characters, and more measured emotional punches, the walking and the climbing might not have been so repetitive and tedious. Instead, we get a film that feels miserably long and uninteresting, devoid of much flair or interest.

Everest is a visually stunning film, and for some, that, along with the performances from the stars, will be enough. Unfortunately, the story and the characters are pushed to the backburner, leaving us with some cool avalanche scenes and a few sad moments. There is a good film here somewhere, and maybe even a great one. As a realistic take on the events of May 1996, this is probably pretty accurate, but as a movie with solid pacing, a natural flow and interesting characters, Everest simply falls short.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Image Credits: The Guardian, Screen Rant, Variety, Youtube,  Fat Movie Guy

1 comment:

  1. I applaud Working Title for breaking new ground and not sticking to the 'Into Thin Air' version of the 1996 Everest tragedy, which is maybe why this book is not in this film's Credits, something that has not gone unnoticed by some professional reviewers.

    Working Title/the Director referred to Jon Krakauer as 'a writer who just happened to be on the mountain at the time'. To learn more about what actually caused this seminal event you will need to read 'A Day to Die For' and 'After the Wind'. Well done Working Title and Baltasar Kormakur for daring to break the mold!