Film review: Everest

David Gritten / 16 September 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten finds out if Everest, a true-life survival thriller about a mountaineering team confronted by mortal danger, truly hits the heights.

Ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first scaled Mount Everest more than 60 years ago, most films about the majestic peak and the various attempts to reach its summit have been documentaries – which often stress the understated heroism of the climbers involved.

The new 3-D film Everest takes a different tack. It’s based on a real-life incident, a 1996 ascent which went badly wrong because of a ferocious storm that cost the lives of several climbers. But most of its dialogue is invented and its events dramatically intensified. Intriguingly, Everest also examines the motives of expedition members, and questions the very nature of heroism: is it always as noble as it appears?

All this is framed in a big, gripping, immersive 3-D extravaganza which does its utmost to put you, the viewer, right up there on the freezing, storm-wracked mountain. From the comfort of your seat, you may feel buffeted by howling winds, lashed by snow and ice, and positively giddy when gazing on the vertiginous drops below the climbers. As their situation worsens, you get a clear idea of how  gruelling their experience had truly been.

Shot in Nepal

Technically, much of this is stunning. Director Baltasar Kormakur shoots imaginatively, placing his cameras in close to the climbers. (Some of the movie was shot in Nepal itself, at heights of up to 15,000 feet.) And 3-D is not used as some additional gimmick here – it genuinely enhances the entire experience.

There’s a big cast, led by Australian actor Jason Clarke, who excels as Rob Hall, head of a mountaineering company and leader of one of the expeditions on their way up. Clarke portrays him as a methodical man, obsessed with safety and procedure; this may make him a trifle dull, yet he sees no point in getting climbers up Everest if he cannot bring them safely down again. Jake Gyllenhaal, another expedition leader, is his opposite: laid-back, casual, and flaunting a ‘que sera, sera’ attitude. Tellingly, his company is called Mountain Madness.

Josh Brolin plays Beck Weathers , a bluff Texas millionaire, too self-centred to be an effective family man, who seems to be on the climb for his own ego. John Hawkes has a pleasing role as a modest American postman, eager to make it to the summit for the kids at his local school. 

Triumph and despair

Women fare less well in this drama. Yasuko Namba (played by Naoko Mori), who in real life had climbed six of the world’s major peaks, and wanted Everest to be her seventh, was in the expedition, but she’s given little to say. Elsewhere, Emily Watson does a fine job as base camp manager Helen Wilton, conveying the anguish and emotion of the horrors unfolding near the summit. But Keira Knightley as Hall’s pregnant Australian wife and Robin Wright as Weathers’s long-suffering spouse, spend most of their screen time looking anguished on the phone.

There’s triumph and despair in Everest, survival and loss. You may well feel emotionally wrung out by the end of it all; you certainly feel as if you’ve been in a movie. And to be candid, getting caught on the upper slopes of Everest in such conditions doesn’t look much like heroism; it looks like hell.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.