Everest review: Action movie that scales new heights
The eponymous star of Baltasar Kormakur's new adventure movie is the world's highest mountain itself, says Andrew Johnston
Everest is as close as audiences are likely to get to scaling the titular mountain without losing a finger or coughing up blood. The epic disaster movie is a chilling affair, sure to put as many people off attempting the trek to Earth's highest point as it is bound to entice the odd nutter.
Based upon true events that befell two groups of climbers in 1996, it is essential not just for fans of mountaineering or the outdoors, but also for lovers of large-canvas cinema. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (101 Reykjavik) has form in helming projects that explore real-life happenings in an otherworldly environment. His 2012 effort The Deep tells the story of the fisherman Guolaugur Frioporsson, who in 1984, survived for six hours in the North Atlantic Ocean after his boat capsized. But Everest takes things to a whole other level.
The gritty, unfussy film has a documentary feel, partly informed by Kormakur's decision to shoot on location in Italy's Dolomites and the Himalayas themselves, with limited computer-generated effects. The cast and crew had to undergo months of rigorous climbing training.
Casting is excellent. As the New Zealand-born guide Rob Hall, Jason Clarke may not be as recognisable a name as the man he took over the role from, Christian Bale, but the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Terminator Genisys actor gives a career-best performance as the man partly credited with opening up Everest to relatively novice climbers.
Hall's approach is to "hold the hands" of clients such as the swaggering Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and the cash-strapped postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), as they inch their way to the top. (Incidentally, Weathers's incredible account of survival would make a fine spin-off flick, should Everest prove a hit.)
In support, a typically committed Jake Gyllenhaal plays Scott Fischer, Hall's more hard-line US rival, who believes you should only be on Everest if you can get yourself up and down.
And so the stage is set to see who will survive and what will be left of them, and the less you know of the tale in advance, the more you will enjoy Kormakur's picture - if "enjoy" is the right word.
Screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy have a wealth of experience penning hard-hitting, biographical material, from Beaufoy's 127 Hours to Nicholson's Unbroken, and here, they pull off a brutally efficient script. What dialogue you can hear over the expertly rendered sound design - all howling wind and the crunch of boots on snow - is gripping, despite an understandable need for significant amounts of exposition.
The commercialisation of Everest is tackled in a sequence depicting the bottlenecks that built up during Hall and Fischer's ascent, which delayed their teams' summit attempts and began a tragic series of incidences.
But the real star of Everest is the mountain itself. The 29,029-foot-high peak maintains a godlike presence, eerie, ominous, incomprehensibly enormous and utterly indifferent to the human dramas playing out on its slopes.
As for why anyone would climb a foreboding natural wonder whose upper reaches are known as the "Death Zone", it is never really answered, but perhaps there is no answer. Maybe that they can, and it's there, as one character shrugs early on, is all there is to it.
Visually spectacular, intellectually stimulating and emotionally charged, Everest is what cinemas where made for.
For once, it is also a movie that deserves to be seen in 3D, and on as massive a screen as you can find, preferably with a steaming mug of hot chocolate to hand.
Everest is showing in Premium Large Format and 3D at selected Omniplex cinemas