'Everest': Venice Review

A gripping and immersive dramatization of a tragic trek. 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin headline an international cast in Baltasar Kormakur's big-screen account of the disastrous 1996 trek along Mount Everest.

For the 99.999 percent of us who will never climb Mount Everest, the new 3D Imax drama Everest provides plenty of vividly illustrated reasons to rationalize leaving it off one's bucket list. However, there are quite a few good reasons to see this robust dramatization of a 1996 assault on the world's tallest mountain that went disastrously wrong, beginning with the eye-popping, you-are-there visual techniques that make you feel glad indeed that you're not actually up there at 29,029 feet, but also including multiple characters sufficiently humanized to create real concern for their fates, and an attention to realistic detail that gives the film texture. Universal should be able to add this one to its impressive list of 2015 box-office successes.

This autumn seems to be the season for vertigo-inducing 3D Imax releases, what with this and the World Trade Center tightrope-walking drama The Walk in the offing. All the same, Everest doesn't go in for cheap shots or sensation for sensation's sake, remaining close to the men and women who have journeyed to the Himalayas for different reasons but for the same purpose: to get to the top of the world.

With its perilous central premise and gallery of individuals — some of whom are destined not to make it — you could say Everest is a disaster movie in the old Hollywood sense of the term, but it doesn't feel like one. And that's a good thing. Telling the same story as, but not officially based on, Jon Krakauer's best-selling book Into Thin Air (perhaps changing things up because the book was already officially adapted for a 1997 TV movie, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest), the film hinges on the freakish conditions that led to the deaths of eight climbers on May 10, 1996. Krakauer is present as a character (played by House of Cards' Michael Kelly), there to write an article for Outside magazine.

The fact that some engaging, friendly Aussies are front and center as the main tour organizers and guides may account for a good deal of the films immediate accessibility; they're the competent, reassuring type you'd feel good entrusting yourself to on such an expedition. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a seemingly all-around great guy, runs Adventure Consultants, and he's helped out most importantly by logistics coordinator Helen (Emily Watson), and guide and close friend Guy (Clarke's fellow ex-Terminator Sam Worthington).

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Aside from Krakauer, among those arriving from distant places are Beck (Josh Brolin), a big-talking Texan; Doug (John Hawkes), a mailman who failed to make it up on a previous attempt, and Yasuko (Naoko Mori), a Japanese woman who has scaled the highest mountains on every other continent.

Two competing guides who will be leading groups up on the same day are stark opposites: American hippie Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Russian Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Sigordsson), a military-style tough guy so macho that he refuses to use supplementary oxygen.

The starting off point for summit seekers is Katmandu, and Everest earns early points for its unblinking glimpses of the Nepalese capital's almost grotesque squalor, a characteristic that now spills over to the sites of the ascent base camps, where no one gives a thought to cleaning up. Krakauer had initially thought to focus his Outside piece on the downsides of Everest tourism and, to its credit, the film doesn't shy away from highlighting the unseemly effects of overcrowding, not only at the camps but on the path to the summit.

Based on weather forecasts, all the tour guides have decided to make the final ascent on the same day, and there's no one to arbitrate or tell someone they can't go whenever they want. Cooperation is useful up to a point, but once you get up to Hillary's Step, the final 40-foot wall approachable only by a narrow passage where one slowpoke can cause a major logjam, overcrowding becomes an issue at a location where, until 43 years earlier, no one on Earth had ever set foot.

But the very fact that climbing Everest had become by this time, if not simple, at least somewhat commonplace, is part of what led to the disaster that has been effectively condensed into such a dramatic, but not melodramatic, screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy. There's a lulling sense of certainty that everything will be okay, a feeling reinforced by the patient, ever-helpful Aussie personnel. It's key that Clarke is so thoroughly likeable as Rob Hall; as soon as you meet the guy, you feel you're in good hands, a sense reinforced by Worthington's and Watson's characters.

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In a way that is engagingly welcoming rather than just informational, the film provides a snappy account of the 40-day prep period; the groups proceed to ever-higher elevations to acclimatize to the altitude, camaradaries develop, foibles and fears are exposed, and anxieties and anticipation mix in equal measure. Beck's Texas braggadocio becomes kind of a gag masking real vulnerabilities (it's also startling to learn he's paid $65,000 to make the climb, and this was nearly 20 years ago), while Doug refuses to let some alarming physical symptoms deter him from his quest. For his part, Rob is distracted by the pregnancy of his wife (Keira Knightley) back home; reasonably reliable, if expensive, phone connections facilitate cutaways to her as well as to Beck's wife (Robin Wright). This is the hokiest stuff in the film.

The second hour is devoted to the final ascent and its aftermath, and it's all quite intense. A perfect, entirely unexpected storm howls in as the first climbers arrive on the tiny precipice, while many more are lined up single file on the narrow path waiting their turns. While it's sometimes impossible to identify who's who under all the coasts, hoods, goggles and masks, director Baltasar Kormakur does a very good job, given the gusts of whooshing wind and blinding snow, of keeping the action coherent and involving; the consequences of over-exposure to the elements are made plainly and painfully evident. It is, in the end, as sad and tragic a film as the story warrants.

For the past several years, Kormakur has juggled projects in his native Iceland with mid-range Mark Wahlberg-starring Hollywood action fare. His last homemade feature, The Deep in 2012, was also a true-life death-or-survival tale, but Everest, bigger and more complex than anything he's done before, vaults him into a new spot professionally.

The cast is rock-solid, and the only thing one might have wished for is the foregrounding of one or two of the sherpa guides, who are around but not much integrated into the main action. Some filming was done in Nepal, with further mountain location work based in Italy and studio scenes shot in Rome and London.

Production: Working Title

Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michel Kelly, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Martin Henderson, Elizabeth Debicki, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Naoko Mori

Director: Baltasar Kormakur

Screenwriters: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormakur, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson

Executive producers: Angela Morrison, Liza Chasin, Evan Hayes, Peter Mallouk, Mark Mallouk, Lauren Selig, Randall Emmett, Brandt Andersen

Director of photography: Salvatore Totino

Production designer: Gary Freeman

Costume designer: Guy Speranza

Editor: Mick Audsley

Music: Dario Marianelli

Visual effects supervisor: Dadi Einarsson

PG-13 rating, 121 minutes