To call Everest a cautionary tale would be an understatement. But the warning is a bit different than you might think. It's not against climbing the world's tallest peak, it's about the right people climbing it. Today, Mount Everest is a graveyard and garbage dump thanks to commercialization. Tour guides promise the adventure of a lifetime to anyone willing to fork over thousands. Everest, set in 1996, depicts the beginning of this trend.
Based on a true story, Everest stars Jason Clarke as Rob Hall, a veteran of six summits whose company, Adventure Consultants, was the first to lead commercial expeditions up the most famous mountains in the world. With him, among others, are rich Texan Beck Hansen (Josh Brolin) and mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), both amateur climbers.
Director Baltasar Kormákur starts the adventure right away. Just getting to Everest is quite a voyage and the film details the experience through Kathmandu and over rope bridges in Nepal, where the mountain awaits. We meet the rest of the large ensemble: Keira Knightley and Robin Wright appear overseas as the concerned wives of Hall and Hansen. Emily Watson is Helen Wilton, who manages the radio communications from base camp. Jake Gyllenhaal leads a separate expedition as Scott Fischer, an Everest veteran like Hall. And Michael Kelly plays Jon Krakauer, the journalist who will put everyone on the cover of Outside magazine.
The movie unfolds on the mountain, the movie's biggest star. As the climbers near the summit, wide shots show off the terrain. Foolhardy or brave, it's hard to deny the romance of seeing the world from its very top. Kormákur succeeds in conveying the beauty of climbing, and the adventurers each talk briefly about their own personal motivations. But Everest moves fast. The film doesn't spend time on character development. It's a front page news account of a serious tragedy that takes shortcuts.
Hall is portrayed as a true hero. He saves two lives early in the film and sacrifices his own safety constantly. This is a man who climbed Everest every year of his life during the '90s. What drives someone to those lengths? Money? Fame? We never learn. Krakauer asks the climbers "Why?" in one scene and receives the standard "Because it's there!" response. But we do know Hall left his pregnant wife alone at home to climb Everest for the seventh time. There's a story there, but the film doesn't have time for it.
Halfway through, some climbers reach the summit, some don't. The second half follows the descent as a crushing storm moves in fast. Hall breaks his own rules of safety to help another climber reach the top and the two become trapped. The drama flashes between Hall and base camp where Helen and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington) try to talk him through it.
It's hard to shake the notion all of this could have been avoided if the professionals didn't cater to the amateurs. But Hall was romantic about his job and saw his expeditions as giving people their dreams. Who's to say he was wrong? The glory of climbing Mount Everest may be everything to a person - something worth dying for. But at what point does that dream become nothing but self-serving? When the mountain is littered with the brightly colored jackets of dead climbers? Everest may be just another disaster movie, but it's also a warning.