Posted on September 17, 2015 at 5:57 pm
This is why we can’t have nice things. As the brief history at the beginning of “Everest” points out, the first successful group to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain was led by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The mountain was the exclusive province of hardy adventurers. But then four decades later, commercial tour groups began to clog the mountain. This made it possible for people who had no business to be there to arrive with certain expectations that people who were being paid to guide them were under a lot of pressure to deliver on. And the crowding itself made it more difficult to keep everyone safe.
Writer Jon Krakauer went on one of those trips for Outside Magazine in 1996, when a huge storm and some bad decisions resulted in the deaths of twelve climbers. His best-selling book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster is the basis for this movie.
The scenery is spectacular, and the 3D IMAX cinematography is literally breathtaking, especially when one climber slips on a precarious ladder across a gorge and we get a vertiginous view straight down. But the people blocking the scenery never come alive to us as characters, partly because most of the time they are wearing near-identical parkas with hoods and speaking through masks or covered with snow, so it is impossible to tell them apart, and partly because so many of them are arrogant idiots. It is difficult to keep the characters straight, much less connect to them, and impossible to feel sympathy for people who make so many bad choices and then go to a place where the altitude, as high as the pressurized cabins of commercial aircraft, literally swells the brain so that thinking is impaired even further.
There are things we do because we dare. And there are things we do because we have big egos and $65,000. Asked repeatedly why they are climbing, no one has a good answer. Some echo Mallory: “Because it’s there!” but the very act of quoting someone else about daring undermines that spirit.
A woman from Japan (Naoko Mori) says that she has already climbed the other six peaks of the world’s seven tallest mountains. A man from Texas (Josh Brolin) wearing a Dole/Kemp t-shirt to make sure we know he’s a proud Republican, says he feels depressed when he’s not on a mountain — and that when his wife (Robin Wright) says she would divorce him if he went on another climb, he went on this one without telling her. A mailman/carpenter (John Hawkes) wants to tell the schoolchildren who helped him raise the money for the trip that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Everyone else kind of mushes together.
Then there are the two rival tour guides, the only distinctive and relatable characters. Rob (Jason Clarke) is a tender-hearted New Zealander with a pretty pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) waiting back home. Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a seemingly laid-back American who beams beatifically when he says “It’s all good,” but points out that all of his group made it to the top when Rob’s group has not.
The film touches on important issues of hubris and the impact of commercialization turing an area that was for thousands of years reserved for the hardiest of adventurers into a playground for people with too much money and too little judgment, but frustratingly abandons them for an increasingly confusing storyline. We know a lot of things are going wrong, but it is difficult to tell what is happening to which climber and where they are in relation to each other. The anguished faces of the people trying to make contact do not come close in impact to that one moment on the bridge.
Parents should know that this film depicts real-life events of extreme peril with many characters injured and killed, very sad deaths, some disturbing images, and some strong language.
Family discussion: What changes would you recommend to prevent these kinds of fatalities in the future? What would you say to Rob in those final conversations if you were Helen? If you were Jan?
If you like this, try: “Touching the Void,” a gripping documentary about another real-life mountain climbing accident and Jon Krakauer’s book about the events of this film