Monday, September 21, 2015

Movie Review: Everest Gets It Right - Mostly

Hollywood has a along history of making mostly bad movies about climbing and mountaineering. Sure, there have been some entertaining films in the past. Sylvester Stallone's Cliffhanger and Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction come to mind. But for the most part, dramatized climbing films are a poor substitute for a good documentary on sport. For my money, few films can hold a candle to Touching the Void for instance. But now, the big blockbuster production Everest is set to get a wide release in theaters this week, and if you're looking for well made, at times harrowing, film about high altitude climbing, you certainly could do a lot worse.

The film is based on the actual events that took place back in 1996, when one of the biggest disasters in mountaineering history took place. The story is a well known one in mountaineering circles of course, with Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air most famously telling the tale. I won't spoil the details for those who don't know the story though, suffice as to say the film takes us on an emotional journey at times, some of which is tough to watch unfold on the big screen.

Krakauer himself is a character in the film, although his role is a relatively small one. Played by Michael Kelly of House of Cards fame, you know that he is there to chronicle the event of the climbing season on Everest for Outside magazine, but he really isn't one of the main characters. Instead, the story focuses on New Zealand climbing guide Rob Hall, who pioneered commercial guiding on Everest. Played by Jason Clarke, Hall is portrayed as a strong climber who cares about his clients, sometimes to his own determent. Hall's chief rival – American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), is also a prominent player in the story, although his character is definitely not as fleshed out.

For those who are completely unfamiliar with the story, back in 1996, Hall was leading a team of climbers to the top of Everest. Commercial guiding was in its infancy at that point, and while the mountain was crowded by the standards of the day, it is nothing like it is today. While high up on the mountain, a massive storm hit the area, and as a result 8 people died. The events that led up to that disaster are crux of the film, but again I won't spoil too much of the story. Those who know it however will also know what is coming, which in my case actually made some of the scenes even more difficult to watch.

I saw the film in 3D and on a massive IMAX screen. For me, the 3D added very little to the film, but the size and scope of the IMAX theater did help to convey a sense of the scale of the mountain. This is a film that is beautifully made, and seeing sweeping shots of Everest, and the Khumbu Valley that leads up to it, was breathtaking. Having been there myself, it was a bit like being transported back, as I recognized a number of well known landmarks along the way. The cinematography alone makes this a film worth seeing in the theater.

Everest was shot in Nepal, Italy, and a Hollywood sound stage, and for the most part it looks fairly seamless. There are times when you can definitely tell that the actors are on a set, but for the most part, things look authentic and well filmed. I even got a kick out of the vintage 1990's gear that the actors used in their roles, although there were one of two items that showed up that didn't exist at the time the film takes place in, but I doubt most viewers will even notice those kinds of details.

The film got off to a bit of a rocky start for me, as it used a bit of cliched dialog and spotty acting in the opening moments of the movie. But some of that was meant to get non-mountaineering viewers up to speed, and before long I found that things settled down nicely, and the story unfolded at a better pace. It wasn't long before I felt my criticism of the acting was a bit unfounded, as the actors settled into their roles and delivered solid performances across the line, including some high profile players in smaller roles.

The one exception to this, at least for me, was Josh Brolin's portrayal of Beck Weathers. In the film, he comes off as very bombastic and over the top, which seems a bit counter to the personality that Beck actually had at the time. While I'm sure he had sense of bravado to a degree, in the film he comes across as loud and obnoxious, yet still likable. It seems to me that those aspects of his character were exaggerated for effect to some degree.

The first half of the movie focuses on building the characters and setting up the task at hand, which is climbing the highest mountain on the planet. There is a lot of ground work set down in the first hour, with the payoff coming later when the climbing action gets underway. The second half of the film focuses on summit day, and the disaster that followed. And since you came to care about these characters early on, it packs a more emotional wallop as a result.

It is hard to walk away from a movie like Everest with good feelings, after all we are watching climbers march to their doom. But I was happy to see that Hollywood had treated the source material with respect, and went to great lengths to try to make it as realistic as possible, while also making it approachable to an audience that doesn't understand mountaineering all that well. Personally, I feel that just about anyone can walk into this movie and know what it is going on, and since they probably won't be as distracted by the climbing aspects as I was, they may even be free to enjoy it more.

Probably my favorite aspect of the film was Jason Clarke's portrayal of Rob Hall. He did a great job of selling the character, and was the centerpiece of the entire movie. The other actors all had an important role to play as well of course, but Clarke was the lynch pin that held it all together for me. If you know Rob's story, you also know how crucial it was to get this aspect of the film right. Thankfully, they were able to do just that.

On Friday, Everest will be available in a much wider release, arriving in theaters across the U.S. and some international territories. If you read this blog with any regularity, you'll probably want to put it on your "must see" list, and make sure you take the time to catch it on the big screen. It is a great effort on the part of Hollywood to make a good mountaineering movie, and I think you'll come away moved by the story and the portrayal of the characters in it. Even you already know what is going to happen, it is still challenging to watch everything unfold. It will also make you think about what these mountaineers go through on their way to the top, and you'll probably come away with a greater appreciation of what they do.


Matthew Alexander said...

Awesome review! Thanks and can't wait to see it!

Kraig Becker said...

You'll enjoy it Matt. Perhaps we can catch a second screening together at some point. :)

George Basch said...

Great, Oscar Worthy, review, Kraig.

Kraig Becker said...

You're far too kind George! :)

Louis-Philippe Loncke said...

Saw it last monday. Nothing special to the story as it's kinda "known" of course.
But the images were superb and I felt back on the mountain (just EBC+start of the icefall)
The weather, snow, storm were also very real and not exaggerated at all as I experienced at times this kind of weather at 5400m and turner back of course.
I surely recommend to see the film. Well done.

Kraig Becker said...

Agreed Lou-Phi! If you know the story, there isn't much new here. But if you don't know it well, like my wife, it can be gripping. She was on the edge of her seat more than once, and was choked up heavily at certain parts.

I also felt like I was back in Nepal, and missed the place dearly while watching.