Sort of based on Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air – and, one assumes, given the lack of credit for Krakauer, the various contradictory follow-up texts – Everest tells the tale, sort of, of the ill-fated 1996 climbing season in which eight climbers died in one day. I say "sort of" because, well, there are many contradicting reports of this disaster and those that could really say for certain generally didn’t make it back to base camp.
There’s a danger then that Everest, a perfectly solid docu-drama about these disastrous events, will be seen as the absolute truth. To be fair to the film, there is an attempt at balance, it pushes Krakauer into the background, focuses on climb leader Rob Hall and avoids most of the controversial aspects of that particular account. The downside of this is that many questions are thus set-up – Why aren’t the ropes in place? Where were the Sherpas? Why weren’t the oxygen bottles full? – and not satisfactorily answered. While this might please the film company’s legal department, the resulting head-scratching undermines the film considerably, which is a shame given that there’s a lot here that’s actually rather good.
It's essentially an ensemble piece about the run up to and the events of that fateful day, mostly told from the viewpoint of Adventure Consultants, the Everest expedition company founded by New Zealander Hall (played here by Jason Clarke), and his assorted clients. Hall is a cautious and experienced climb leader: as he says, he’s being paid not to get his clients to the summit but to get them down alive. The problem is, while Adventure Consultants are arguably the most cautious company offering such services, they’re no longer the only team trying to conquer the mountain. There are plenty of rivals, such as Scott Fischer (Gylenhall) and his Mountain Madness company, plus all sorts of other groups. And all are attempting to get their myriad clients up a narrow path to the summit on or around the same date.
In short, it’s probably a disaster waiting to happen and, this being a mountaineering film, that’s exactly what happens. Unfortunately, some of it is a little confusing and, while certain characters and their fates are well drawn – particularly Doug (Hawkes), Beck (Brolin) and Yasuko (Mori) – others are lost in the mix. There are emotional punches for sure, and Knightly is excellent as Hall’s pregnant wife, back home in NZ, but others – particularly Wright – get little chance to do anything of note and all too often feel like stunt casting, thrown in for two minutes of screentime and some emotional shorthand.
What does come across – and particularly if viewed as a companion piece to Krakauer’s book and all the other available tomes – is the sheer danger of mountaineering at this level. It’s often hard to picture such extremes but Kormákur handles this aspect with aplomb, even if the "why" of the venture isn’t always clear, beyond the standard "because it’s there" reply. In 3D – and particularly on IMAX – the immense scale, and sphincter-tightening nature, of the challenge is all too evident, so it’s a shame then that the overall effect is a little bit underwhelming.