It’s an unforgiving place, Everest.
It’s a magnet for the daring, drawing climbers from around the world who want to stand at the top of the world at 29,029 feet and thereby prove to themselves they have the distilled essence of the right stuff.
But up in the death zone above 26,000 feet, where oxygen is scarce, temperatures are numbing, the weather is treacherous and a single misstep can be a climber’s last step, that’s where the mountain’s true nature manifests itself.
The mountain, says New Zealand climbing guide Rob Hall (Jason Clark) in “Everest,” is a “beast.” “The last word always belongs to the mountain,” another character declares. And it could be that director Baltasar Kormákur’s feature “Everest” is the last word in movies about the mountain.
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There have been a lot of them, to be sure, including a 1998 IMAX documentary, also titled “Everest,” which, like Kormákur’s picture, deals with the catastrophe that claimed the lives of eight climbers on May 10-11, 1996. But Kormakur’s “Everest,” being shown in IMAX and 3-D at some locations, is unique in the way it combines breathtaking visuals (some shot on the foothills of Everest itself, others captured on the Senales Glacier in northern Italy), with the personal stories of those who challenged the mountain, and in a number of cases died on its slopes. With its rigorous attention to the technical details of mountain climbing and its sensitive handling of the characters’ relationships, it has a you-are-there immediacy unmatched by previous Everest movies.
The cast is large, and the picture is essentially an ensemble piece, though the trials and travails of Hall, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) a mailman making his second attempt to reach the summit, and Texas physician Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) who suffers grievously from frostbite, are prominently featured. Less prominent in the story is Scott Fischer, founder of the Seattle-based Mountain Madness mountaineering service, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal with a sly ebullience that’s in sharp contrast to Hall’s steady-as-she-goes nature.
Hall’s devotion to his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) and his careful shepherding of his climbing clients, Hansen’s determination to realize his longtime dream of summiting the mountain, and Weathers’ headstrong nature all make the characters memorable.
When a huge sudden storm sweeps across the peak, the picture becomes intensely riveting as the characters struggle to survive the mountain’s fury. In those scenes, Everest truly becomes an implacable beast.
☆☆☆☆½ out of 5
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur.
Running time: 2:01.
Rated: PG-13, for intense peril and disturbing images.