Daybreak on Mount Everest, May 10, 1996, found the mountain sunny and relatively calm. This was the day chosen by several mountain guides for the final ascent with clients toward the highest point on Earth: the summit at 29,029 feet. A logjam soon developed.
Then with no warning that afternoon a violent storm engulfed the mountain with hurricane force winds and blinding snow. Soon evening fell. Everyone — mountaineer guides, clients and Sherpas — struggled against Mother Nature at her most ferocious to rescue each another and find a way down to Camp Four at around 26,000 ft.
By the time the ordeal ended, Mount Everest claimed the lives of eight climbers, the deadliest day in its history.
Among the climbers that day was now-famed journalist Jon Krakauer. His book “Into Thin Air,” published a year later, has already served as a basis for a TV movie about this tale of fate, courage and disaster. Now it’s the basis for an Imax 3D film, “Everest,” that attempts to thrust you into that mountain storms amid all the frantic activity.
Of course, that’s not possible since you’re well aware of — and thoroughly grateful for — the fact you sit in air-conditioned comfort in plush seats staring at a huge screen, about as far removed from this saga of survival as possible.
In other words, for all the suspense and grandeur of the cinematography, which does capture the ferocity nature can unleash on humans, who have ventured to a place they have no business being in for even one moment, the movie can’t possibly deliver the existential experience of being trapped in Everest’s icy grip.
What the movie must settle on therefore are individual melodramas of desperation, struggle and abandonment, of life and death on the pitiless slopes. Here the movie, directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur, almost succeeds.
In actuality, none of these climbers is able to articulate any solid reason for doing what he does; they just bought tickets to Nepal and are ready to tackle one of the world’s most dangerous mountains.
What confounds the movie’s own struggle to make high-anxiety drama about the various scenarios at play during those tortuous hours are the sheer numbers of people and therefore subplots to follow in blinding snow and darkness.
Indeed what created the tragedy — a mountain over crowded with too many guided tours for people who are not professional climbers — is what gives the movie’s screenwriters undoubted fits: How do you keep track of all this?
The congestion of tourist climbers ever since mountaineering entrepreneurs threw open the slopes of Everest to anyone with a fat wallet has become so bad that climbers experience a kind of rush hour at certain rope bridges and narrow passageways. There were, in fact, 34 climbers from multiple expeditions attempting to summit on that fateful day.
After a number of false starts in trying to make sense of all these competing storylines, two stalwart Brits, William Nicholson (“Shadowlands,” “Unbroken”) and Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”), brought a degree of focus to the chaos of storylines.
Which no doubt made perfect sense on paper: Several great stories with men trapped in impossible situations as well as women hanging on satellite-linked phones weeping copiously as their men face seeming death.
But as Kormákur cuts from situation to situation, to an entire cast of bearded men overwhelmed in mountain gear, hoods, goggles and masks, try to figure out who is who. It comes down mostly to your memory for who is wearing what color jacket. Not helping much is Dario Marianelli’s constant musical score that detracts rather than adds to the intensity,
Kormákur admirably goes for an unsentimental approach to this existential crisis, letting the stories speak for themselves. However this does put a distance between you and the characters’ ordeals that has nothing to do with sitting in those posh seats.
You barely get to know anyone in the early going beyond the rudiments of “I’m a Texas” or “We have different styles (of guiding tourist climbers).” What you do learn, mostly from the women who serve as base camp manger and doctor (Emily Watson and Elizabeth Debicki) are the treacherous ways of Everest.
In the “Death Zone” near at the top, the human body literally starts dying as oxygen is so scarce. Lungs can also fill with fluid that can choke a person to death. Frostbite can kill too. Only team work will get everyone back safely to base camp.
One key figure is Rob Hall, who runs a premiere mountain-guiding company, Adventure Consultants. He is played by Aussie Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”), who builds your respect for all the meticulous care and caution he shows in establishing ground rules for the climb to make it as safe as possible.
Scott Fischer, the somewhat flakey founder of another such company, Mountain Madness, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who seems to be in a competition with himself to utterly transform his body physically for every new role. Less than two months ago he was credibly punching like a light heavyweight champ in “Southpaw.”
Josh Brolin takes on the challenging role of Beck Weathers, a Texas pathologist who escapes his “dark clouds” by mountain climbing. Give this much to Brolin — you always recognize his character on the mountain.
Veteran character actor John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “The Sessions”), as Doug Hansen, plays easily the most interesting character on the mountain but you sense the screenwriters didn’t have enough info to fully flesh him out.
A mail carrier who somehow has enough dough to pay for the expedition, Doug had come within a few hundred feet of the summit a year earlier. He returned in 1996 to cover those last few feet. Rob is therefore motivated to ensure he makes it, but in so doing they miss the 2 PM turnaround time that could seal their fate.
“Avatar’s” Sam Worthington portrays Guy Cotter, another Adventure Consultants guide, who is in the area on the adjacent Mount Pumori and in radio contact with Rob through most of the ordeal.
Hanging on phone lines to pump up the emotions further are such fine actresses as Keira Knightley, as Rob’s pregnant wife Jan, and Robin Wright, as Beck’s determined wife Peach
While some principal photography took place in Nepal, most of the movie was shot on Val Senales in northern Italy amid heavy snowfall plus extremely realistic sets in Pinewood Studios in the U.K. and Cinecittà Studios in Rome. You cannot tell the fake from the real.
The movie touches on troubling issues: What role did the business objective to get clients to the summit play in the tragedy? How did the presence of journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly) influence decision making? Should there even be Everest tourism?
The filmmakers raise these issues but do not answer them.
It’s a little perverse though to take a starry cast and thrust them into a cinematic realm that can make little use of their talents. The lure to acting in this film might well have been what lures so many to Everest itself — the macho live-life-to-the-fullest spirit that seduces hikers and apparently actors too.
For no one really stands out once the storm hits. They struggle, falter, drop and in a few cases revive but they are in a Dead Zone for human bodies as well as thespian talent.
The film can’t help grabbing your attention with this life-or-death struggle. But you’re never really involved in the 3D (modest at best) Imax (better since it’s huge) rendering of this fateful tale.
Opens: September 18, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures and Cross Creek Pictures present in association with Walden Media a Working Title production in association with RVK Studios and Free State Pictures
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Michel Kelly, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Martin Henderson, Elizabeth Debicki, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Naoko Mori
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Screenwriters: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy
Based on the book by: Jon Krakauer
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Baltasar Kormakur, Nicky Kentish Barnes, Brian Oliver, Tyler Thompson
Executive producers: Angela Morrison, Liza Chasin, Evan Hayes, Peter Mallouk, Mark Mallouk, Lauren Selig, Randall Emmett, Brandt Andersen
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Gary Freeman
Costume designer: Guy Speranza
Music: Dario Marianelli
Visual effects supervisor: Dadi Einarsson
Editor: Mick Audsley
PG-13 rating, 121 minutes