Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth, has been a challenge for climbers since Norgay and Hillary were the first to officially reach the summit in 1953. Here it is a character in itself, a foreboding presence at all times. Effortlessly beautiful but potentially deadly at the same time. You scale the mountain at your own risk, there is no telling how quickly circumstances can change from good to bad to worse. This was the case for the 1996 expedition to reach the summit. That year eight people died after being caught in a blizzard.
We spend the first hour being introduced to the characters, in particular the two key groups that are planning to climb to the top. We also meet the other groups that have descended upon the mountain. 1996 happened to be the year that base camp was relatively swarming with people after Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall (played here by Jason Clarke) proved that commercialising Everest climbs was a possibility. Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), leading the rival group Mountain Madness, join forces to help reduce potentially fatal delays on the ascent.
Joining them on the mountainside are a cavalcade of famous faces including Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Naoko Mori, Emily Watson and Sam Worthington, some of whom will scale Everest but won’t make it back, others such as Watson and Elizabeth Debicki are a consistent presence at base camp – it seems that you can’t have an emotional moment in a film without having crying women present to emphasise the point. There are no good guys and bad guys here, as it’s the mountain and the elements that are the true enemy. Occasional disagreements aside, the climbers are mostly dedicated to one another’s survival. Or their own, on occasion.
It is in the second half of the film, once the peak of Everest has been reached, that the story takes its inevitable turn to tragedy. By now we’ve spent an hour with these characters, been advised time and time again of the inherent dangers in climbing Everest. Be it oxygen deprivation, acclimatisation, lack of equipment, poor planning, altitude sickness or combination of any and all of these, the odds aren’t that great.
It’s perhaps for the best that we had the opening hour to meet the characters, because ultimately there’s no depth to these people. As great as the actors behind them are (and no doubt the real people being portrayed), we’re given little to work with beyond some key personality stereotypes and emotional touchstones with family members back home. Josh Brolin is grumpy, Rob Hall is accommodating and non-confrontational, Fischer is a long haired hippie type. Watson, Debicki and Knightley are on hand to offer well meaning words and tears, and so on.
The drama atop Everest is gripping stuff, but the families left at home are given short shrift. Keira Knightley and Robin Wright have little to do except wait for news of the inevitable. It’s a terrible waste of their talents, but I admit that to expand on their roles would have meant less time getting to know the climbers, and it is in them that the story is rightly focused. As the story is treated with due deference the grounded performances add emotional depth to what would otherwise be an emotionally distant narrative.
Other themes, such as the commercialisation of Everest, rather than the respect nature deserves, is touched upon but never fleshed out to its full potential. It’s a film that looks great and justly covers a tragic event with due respect, but is lacking in other key areas that could have made it essential viewing.