Few settings on Earth are more suited for the IMAX treatment than Mount Everest, which makes the format ideal for Everest. And to the film’s credit, the visuals merit the extra charge of admission, even if the spectacular views that represent Everest regularly involve the Italian Alps instead. Shots of indiscernible climbers trekking up a massive mountain, or climbing over ladders extended above bottomless crevices, only seem more immense in the format.
Unfortunately, the format can’t cover for a story that’s painfully generic. And that’s in spite of journalist Jon Krakauer writing Into Thin Air, a well-written, well-received bestseller that chronicles the events shown in this film. That may be in part because, even though Krakauer is present in the film (played by Michael Kelly), William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s script for Everest is based on other sources. It’s a strange choice, because Krakauer is a prominent presence in the film, which opens in 1996 with the team from Adventure Consultants getting ready for the current season in the Himalayas.
Adventure Consultants, headed by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), was among the first organizations created in getting amateur climbers to the top of Everest. Hall’s anticipation for this particular trip is heightened by Krakauer’s last-minute switch to their company from rival Mountain Madness, which if all goes well means that Hall can expect an increase in business. Hall is the sort of man who actually cares about each of his clients, and while he’s eager to go on the trip, he’s also eager to return home to his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley), who makes sure to tell him to be back in time for the birth. In this script’s hands, it’s practically a dare for doom.
The film then journeys to Katmandu, where the other members of the team are introduced. Among them are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan with a strong-willed wife named Peaches (Robin Wright) back home, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman who just missed reaching the summit the previous year. Along with Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, though, several other businesses have found their way to the Everest base camp. This leads Hall to propose a temporary partnership with Mountain Madness and its leader, the laid-back Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Everything leads up to the fateful day in May where a combination of natural phenomena (in this case, a horrible storm) and human error lead to catastrophe.
Among the film’s chief problems is that, in addition to the characters mentioned above, the film tries to include a wide range of other supporting characters. While well-intentioned, and possibly feasible in another sort of movie, it’s a problem in Everest in part because it’s hard to tell these characters apart once the storm comes. It doesn’t help that they’re all bundled into gear, and surrounded (and occasionally covered by) snow.
Everest is also a darker story than one might imagine, even given the tragic outcoming of the real-life events. The film’s second half (roughly) is about survival, and for many of the characters that get more attention here, survival doesn’t come. It’s true to life, but the film doesn’t always manage to make these events more emotionally involving. It’s a drawback, and it keeps Everest from reaching its own peak.