Published September 28, 2015
Things that once looked unassailable turned out not to be. Everest must have seemed impossible to climb until one day, two guys were standing at the top. Since then, hundreds have gone up. Hollywood once seemed equally unapproachable to Icelandic filmmakers. And now Baltasar Kormákur has made it to the top.
He has had international hits before, from Icelandic arthouse films such as ‘101 Reykjavík’ and ‘Djúpið’ (“The Deep”), to American-produced action movies like ‘Contraband’ and ‘2 Guns’. But this is the first ever Icelandic-directed big-budget spectacle movie, studded with stars and gorgeous 3D shots. Inevitably, it takes place on a mountain.
In some ways, ‘Everest’ is mountain porn at its best, shot from a variety of angles. Just watching people try to make it up there is exciting enough, even before the plot kicks in. And yet there is one thing here noticeably different from other movies about mountaineers. It really, really doesn’t make you want to go up there.
Jason Clarke’s character is the obvious hero, but with all those familiar famous faces around, you can’t help but wonder who will take on the role of villain. Will it be the Republican-voting Texan played by Josh Brolin, the devil-may-care adventurer Jake Gyllenhaal, the rather wimpy John Hawkes or the Icelander-as-Russian Ingvar E. Sigurðsson? A Frenchman who quickly exits the scene comes close, but the answer is: None of the above.
While there is tension between the leaders of the two expedition groups, as depicted by Clarke and Gyllenhaal, the film avoids any obvious good mountain-climber/bad mountain-climber dynamic. Mistakes are made, but unlike most bad movie decisions, these are not made by bad people for selfish reasons, but rather by good people wanting to give everyone their chance. The true villain of the piece is the mountain itself, and the film is all the better for it.
And yet the mountain’s only crime, as we know, is simply being there. And even though the subject is broached, we never really get any better reason for going up. One character wants to inspire his underprivileged students. Another simply wants to challenge himself. And upon their return down sans noses or fingers—if they return at all—it’s hard to defend their decision to scale Mt. Everest as a wise one.
The film doesn’t really give an easy moral, but rather gets on with the business of showing humans fighting for their lives on edges of cliffs. And yet, there is a sense of rock climbing as big business, of various tourist groups getting in each other’s way, endangering one another. Perhaps it is best to just allow the mountain to remain there in peace.
Around here, people have routinely frozen to death or fatally fallen into cracks just trying to get from one place to another. It was rarely done for fun. Perhaps it takes an Icelander to de-mythologize the extreme sport of mountain climbing, while still making one hell of a mountain film while doing so.