Everyone knows that Everest is dangerous, sometimes even fatally so. Yet, this doesn’t stop adventurers, adrenaline junkies and fantasists from dreaming of reaching the world’s highest summit. Despite knowing the danger – or perhaps more often, because of the sense of danger – the peak of Everest draws desiring mountaineers like moths to a flame. We humans can be an ambitious, determined and deeply foolish bunch.
Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest reflects this almost entirely. The very form of the film echoes the irrational pull of the mountain. We all know the adventure / disaster / survival movie formula – and Everest follows it nearly to the letter – and yet, it remains awe-inspiring, moving and genuinely nerve-wracking. It somehow pulls you in. It also showcases the utterly human blend of bravery and bravado it takes to attempt such a feat.
It is here that it somewhat departs from the predictable, straight-forward action-adventure flick, as it refuses to entirely hold up the protagonists as either heroes or fools. This is a disaster-survival movie with streaks of triumph, but also resounding desolation.
Some critics have seen this as indecisive, viewing the mix of classic action-adventure movie with something more mournful as narrative uncertainty on the part of the director. However, it seems more self-aware than this criticism implies; the bleakness displayed is what rescues the movie from hackneyed cliché.
Certainly, the set up suggests the audience will be graced with the standard generic stereotypes. Expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) fills the kind-hearted alpha role, as his heavily-pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) tearfully waits behind. There is a swaggering Texan, Buck (played impeccably by Josh Brolin) and a mother-hen in Emily Watson’s Helen Wilton, basecamp go-to woman. There is even a villain character, in the rival South African expedition leader, dressed in flashy North Face gear and an arrogant attitude. However, for every ascent there is a descent, and out of this apparently conventional opening emerges a more nuanced reflection on the challenge of Everest, and of ego.
The swaggering Texan is revealed to have unexpected levels of sorrow, vulnerability and courage. While his early characterisation as spoilt, stubborn, wealthy-white-man does not entirely disappear – it does after all cost up to 65,000 dollars for amateurs to be guided up the mountain – it is ultimately shown as too simplistic a caricature.
But then, these are real people we are dealing with. They are not wholly dreamed up by movie studios, keen for a thrilling action picture, but actual humans, some of whom never made it back to everyday reality. And while the film may slip too easily into cliché, as weeping women wait for their macho menfolk to return, it also reveals the base truth to the stereotype. Wealthy Westerners, dissatisfied with easy, sedentary lives that have failed to live up to youthful dreams, will pay thousands to jolt themselves out of their comfort zone, in the most extreme way possible. They want to prove that they can be heroes. And sometimes they can be, as Everest shows in its triumphant ascent scenes, but often at a dreadful price, and always with others waiting behind.
What may in pure blockbuster be written off as sentimental is here genuinely affecting and poignant. It may sound corny when Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) pronounces “the last word always belongs to the mountain”, but by the film’s second act this notion of humanity’s absolute powerlessness resonates acutely.