Not quite the peak of mountaineering cinema.
Dir: Baltasar Kormákur
2015, USA, Universal Pictures
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson
There is a moment in Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void (2003) – the absolutely riveting docu-drama that recounts Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ legendary near-fatal summit of the treacherous Andean peak, Siula Grande – in which a disconsolate Simpson, recalling a pivotal point of his horrific ordeal, utters: “I lost something”. Out of context, “something” sounds as if it refers to something rather trivial. The reality, however, is that those three words – delivered by Simpson with tearful authenticity – were said to describe the moment when he could physically and mentally no longer go on after crawling for days across a dangerous glacier and jagged moraines, all while he was severely malnourished and carrying one horrifically broken leg. The words encapsulate the abject terror of abandoning all hope and psychologically accepting one’s own death in a way I never thought could be accomplished with such simplicity. Though Simpson’s three simple words do not of course fully verbalise the actual extremity of his ordeal (I don’t think any words could), they possess a power and resonance that Everest never achieves in all of its 3D, IMAX excess.
Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is in fact a dramatization of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster – one of the deadliest mountaineering disasters ever recorded – rather than a documentary. Therefore, comparing it to Touching the Void, which features the actual subject of the story, may seem a tad unfair at first.
Everest retains the real names of people who were part of the numerous expeditions to reach the world’s highest peak, including the ones who died doing so. It also attempts to explore some of the problems that may have contributed towards the disaster – not merely the overcrowding, the ferocious storm that unexpectedly struck or the perilously thin air of the ‘death zone’ (the height at which humans literally begin to die when they are exposed to such altitude) – that took many of the people’s lives.
What I thought Everest did remarkably well was cut through to the sense of how blind ambition can cost mountaineers their lives. Whether it be to inspire people, through friendly competition with other climbers, or in order to prove something to oneself, many climbers in Everest are shown to have died because of this intense drive to reach the top with disregard for their own safety and of others. Generally, people climb dangerous mountains for the physical and mental challenge; the sense of triumph that comes with conquering such a daunting feat. A person who is able to genuinely say, “I climbed Everest” or “I climbed K2”, or anything of a similar nature, belongs to a very exclusive club of adventurers that have well and truly ‘lived’. At least in my own mind. Therefore, I imagine that ambitious mountaineers are not too partial to being known by fellow mountaineers (and themselves) for conquering all but the last 1,500ft of one of the world’s largest mountains. An ambitious climber would, of course, want to reach the summit for that life-affirming sense of achievement. Anything less, I would imagine, is akin to failing. Even if they are physically dying due to the extreme conditions and can see what appears to be some kind of fast-approaching biblical storm on the horizon, they will surely want to press on.
Sadly, I feel that the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster was an event of such a large scale that involved so many parties that it may be one of those real-life stories that cinema will never be able to adequately tell (at least in a mere two hours). Despite Everest wisely choosing to focus only on the New Zealand and American expeditions, it still feels as if the film tried to cram too many main central characters and their own individual dilemmas for us to sympathise with as none them are particularly defined. When the shit hits the fan and the two characters that have been afforded the most screen-time, Rob Hall (Clarke) and his gruff Texan group-member, Beck Weathers (Brolin), find themselves in dire circumstances, the film adequately conveys the horror and desperation of the situation but I still did not feel emotionally invested in their plight – the film had, in a sense, cancelled itself out.
The film is also spinning too many plates with various issues that are brought up. There is one instance in which the hopeless base camp manager – a top performance from Emily Watson – utters something in regards to it being bad for business if the travel company fails to summit Everest for the umpteenth year running. This, of course, indicates certain commercial pressures on the company to make the summit for business reasons, a point that could have been a lot more compelling if the film didn’t completely forget about it. There is also an unclear issue regarding some reserve oxygen canisters that might have oxygen or might not have oxygen which remained unanswered and frustrating.
The film is well acted and looks suitably terrific (although it must be said that the green-screen sometimes looks a bit off) but it unfortunately robs itself of the gripping, emotional heft that Touching the Void had in spades as its characters are essentially fighting for screen time. Sure, Touching the Void may have the advantage of its (considerably fewer) subjects telling the story as it happened and is a different style of cinema altogether, but, for my money at least, it is still the finest mountaineering film put to screen. This is simply for how it allows you inside the minds of Simpson and Yates and places you on that icy Andean peak with them in what was very close to being their final moments. This is not to say that every film concerning a real-life mountaineering disaster should be a docu-drama; Everest is still mostly exiting, and does occasionally pull on the heartstrings. But considering the magnitude of the ordeal, I wasn’t particularly moved and the film ultimately felt like an opportunity squandered.
- Liam Hathaway