Warning: possible spoilers!
Everest, directed by Icelander Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband, Inhale and 2 Guns), is based on the 1996 Everest disaster, documented in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, when eight climbers died in a blizzard on the mountain. At the time—and until last year—no Everest disaster had claimed as many lives. The expedition was led by two highly experienced guides: Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke; Zero Dark Thirty, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Great Gatsby), owner of the New Zealand guiding agency Adventure Consultants, and Scott Fischer (played by Jake Gyllenhaal; Prisoners, Nightcrawler) of Mountain Madness in Seattle, US.
The much-anticipated film details the expedition, training on the mountain and finally the fateful ascent, timed to capture a window of opportunity between two looming storms. Because unusually many climbers were planning to ascend on this day, May 10, the two guides decided to join forces to increase their chances of a successful climb.
Everest begins in New Zealand where Hall’s group is introduced, but before you know it, you have arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, with close aerial views of crowded and vibrant street scenes. It’s then that you realize the film, in 3D, is going to take you on a spectacular journey.
Gradually, the viewer moves higher and higher up Everest, from one base to the next. The colorful clothing in the streets of Kathmandu is now replaced by cities of colorful tents and climbers. The viewer experiences Everest in all its astounding beauty when taken on an unforgettable tour over steep cliffs and bottomless crevasses, over snow-filled valleys and towering mountain peaks.
And what an experience it is in 3D! You watch the climbers train as they cross footbridges over crevasses, challenging even to the viewer who is afraid of heights. Watching the smallness of the people in contrast with the gigantic mountain reminds you of the insignificance of man in the vastness of nature. The visuals couldn’t be more impressive. It should be noted that while some of the scenes were filmed in Nepal, the crew also spent six weeks shooting in the Dolomites, Italy.
Daði Einarsson is the film’s technical expert and this is the fifth movie he works on with Baltasar. All technical work for Everest was done in Iceland. Daði told Stöð 2 in an interview yesterday that the most difficult part had been to change and create background for parts shot either with the help of greenscreen technology (a three-dimensional modular trellis system) or in the Italian Alps (because the landscape is of course different to that in the Himalayas). In the interview, Baltasar said, “I’ve been asked why we didn’t shoot the film on Everest, but that’s simply for the same reason as Alfonso Cuaron didn’t shoot Gravity in space,” referring to the 2013 science fiction thriller.
We also get a close-up of the climbers and although the film doesn’t attempt to delve deep into their backgrounds, it gives a good sense of the ambiance among them. You sense there is competition between the teams—a fact summed up by Russian climber and guide Anatoli Boukreev, played by Icelander Ingvar Þór Sigurðsson, who so memorably says, “We don’t need competition between people. The competition is between the people and the mountain, and the last word always belongs to the mountain.”
Outside Magazine journalist Jon Krakauer, played by Michael Kelly, ask the climbers the ultimate question, “Why climb the mountain when you know it hurts, is dangerous, and ruins relationships?” Even though the collective answer seems superficial, “Because it’s there,” some of them give credible answers. One climbs to get rid of a cloud of depression, and another to inspire schoolchildren by showing them that a regular guy can make his wildest dreams come true. We also know from the start that the guides charge enormous fees (around USD 65,000) for participation in such expeditions. For them, nature has become a cash cow.
There are no heroes in Everest and that’s why it leaves an impression. In that sense, the film is an anti-Hollywood movie. Baltasar carefully avoids glorifying the expedition or any of its participants. They’re all equally vain—and human—trying to accomplish the almost insurmountable, some for money and others for glory—all driven by extreme ambition and limitless egotism. They all know the expedition will be filled with pain and suffering, but the desire for the thrill of reaching the summit keeps them going. Despite the focus on the trials endured, there is no lack of suspense, which keeps you excited throughout the film.
On another level, Hollywood is clearly present with its cluster of stars, including Clarke as Hall and Gyllenhaal as Fischer, Josh Brolin as Beck Weathers, John Hawkes as Doug Hansen, Kiera Knightley as Jan Hall, Robin Wright as Peach Weathers, Emily Watson as Helen Wilton, and Sam Worthington as Guy Cotter. Still, none of them is really thrust to the foreground to play a more prominent role than the others. Likewise, they’re all convincing in their roles and careful not to overact. [Editor’s note: to viewers who can distinguish an Australian accent from a New Zealand one, Clarke’s Australian accent may be distracting, perhaps irritating, given that he is supposed to be playing a New Zealander. While Clarke, who is Australian, does not attempt a New Zealand accent, Knightley, who plays Hall’s wife, is convincing as a Kiwi].
We see how even the best and most expensive equipment is never completely safe, and that no matter how clever humanity thinks it is, nature always has the upper hand. We’re reminded of the fallibility of man when the best of guides make the stupidest of mistakes, knowing full well that in doing so, they’re playing not only with their own lives, but other people’s as well.
Although the film covers a serious subject, it’s not without a sense of humor—most notably when Weathers’ wife tells the US Embassy that having him die again is not going to play well on CNN. The script is well written and flows naturally, giving the film the realistic tone of a documentary.
Everest is the collaboration of hundreds of people from many countries. At the Iceland premiere in Smárabíó cinema last night, Baltasar reminded the audience of the large Icelandic contribution to the film by calling on stage all the Icelanders who took part in its making. The group, made up of close to 30 individuals I’d guess, received a strong applause from the audience. Baltasar also admitted to being more nervous about showing the film here, to his home audience, than he was in Hollywood. He was keen to show that he had not forgotten his roots and a trailer for the upcoming television series Trapped was screened. The series is the most expensive Icelandic TV series ever made and was produced in collaboration with international partners such as the BBC. The rights to the series, which will premier in late December, have also been picked up in the U.S.
Everest opened the Venice Film Festival, an honor reserved for the festival’s most promising films, some of which have gone on to receive Oscars nominations. Reviews have been mixed, with the majority of critics praising it, while the Guardian lamented the fact it has “no centrally powerful character,” and BBC claimed it “lack[ed] an involving plot or characters.” What seemed to bother the harshest critics is the lack of a Hollywood hero on a glorious mission. As stated above, it is indeed this realism that makes the film unique and convincing.
What was a little shocking is how freely some of the guides used alcohol the nights prior to the ascent. You would have expected them to do their best to be in top shape on such a day. At times, Fischer appeared more careless in that regard than a highly disciplined guide should be. Admittedly, we get limited information regarding the climbers’ backgrounds and it’s entirely possible that the partying reflects the atmosphere at the time. Knowing more about them undoubtedly would have made the viewer even more engaged.
But first and foremost, this is a film about the expedition itself—a complicated task, which takes more than two hours to describe. Everest is not about sentimentality. It’s above all about a group of people who failed to complete an almost impossible task. It’s a film that reminds us of the limits of man and the danger involved in looking at nature as a money-maker.
In an interview in the latest issue of Iceland Review magazine, Baltasar talked about gaining fame—he is Iceland’s most successful cinematic export to date—and the importance of taking time off between difficult projects. “You have to be grateful but you also have to take care of yourself,” he said, “The higher you climb, the more you struggle.”
With Everest, Baltasar has indeed climbed high. His audience has a reason to be on cloud nine.
In English, shown in Iceland with Icelandic subtitles
The film runs in the following movie theaters in Reykjavík:
For more information on screenings in Iceland, visit kvikmyndir.is.
The film premieres globally today.