Overview: The true story of two mountain climbing groups who got caught in an unexpected storm while attempting to reach the top of Mt. Everest in 1996. Universal Pictures; 2015; PG-13; 150 Minutes.
“Because It’s There”: The summit of Mt. Everest is 8,848 meters above sea level. At any altitude higher than 8,000 meters, as expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) explains in the new film which shares the mountain’s name, the human body starts to die. Which begs the question: why do climbers even try? When asked why he would want to climb Mt. Everest, pioneer climber George Mallory now-famously replied “Because it’s there.” Inspiring, maybe, but any deeper consideration exposes that the retort is rather nondescript, completely lacking any real insight into the climber mentality. Everest, the new film from Director Baltasar Kormákur which documents the tragedy of a failed 1996 expedition, borrows Mallory’s simple observation and buries it thematically under every scene like a hidden, rhythmic pulse. Indeed, Kormákur also seems to have little concern for the “why?” of the climb, but shares his characters’ fixation on the mountain’s figurative and literal omnipresence. In a scene just before the trek begins, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), the journalist who participated in the ill-fated climb and later captured the event in a memoir, forces the other climbers to face this question, but no one in the room has an answer that illuminates understanding. The climb of Mt. Everest requires participants to possess a blind obsession, a fixation that can’t be divorced from the mind. “Because it’s always there,” Kormákur’s film seems to paraphrase Mallory. And for the director, his characters, and presumably the real life people upon which those characters are based, the mountain is everything and everywhere. Not once in this film does a climber speak toward any other part of his or her life without returning in the same breath to the words “climb” or “mountain.” Divorces, unhappy families, pregnant wives, jobs, homes, all of it inextricably tied to the mountain.
It’s a necessary truth– the climb to Everest is an all-consuming goal. But that truth does no favors to the narrative function and the dramatic material of the film. That sort of near-psychotic fixation makes empathy a challenge for the viewer, but also cuts off any avenue at which personal understanding can be illustrated in more relatable exchanges. And at the bleakest moments of Everest, where the screen is overtaken in dark gray static and climbing gear obscures the distinguishable person-hood of each character, this absence of care and understanding is a tad disruptive. In the inter-storm chaos, if only momentarily, Everest loses grip on its fixed rope of compassion.
An Uneven Matchup: But if the figurative presence of the mountain serves as minor narrative obstacle, the physical presence often lends to incredible cinematic arrangement. After the climbers reach the base camp of Everest, they are never standing on an even plane without the dizzying backdrop of screen consuming white snow and stone wall, a symbolic imprisonment. When the climbers move upward, the ground slices vertically through the screen at impossible inclines from the bottom of the frame to the top, and the sky sits empty behind their backs. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino captures the Everest climb as a self-imposed Sisyphean limbo. Though they may not realize it, for these climbers, the need is insatiable; always, there is something higher, more dangerous.
Overall: At a critical moment, the film temporarily sides with the mountain and allows chilling observation of Everest’s lethal potential. Some might find the calloused deaths and frozen corpses to be an unpleasant thing to witness, but it is the only logical conclusion when the hubris of strong men and women challenges the most uncaring geography our planet has to offer.