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Film Review – Everest

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everest movie bannerEverest is a movie of expanses. The most obvious ones are the expanses of the Himalayas, their peaks competing arrogantly with the sky for superiority, their snowfields competing perilously with gravity to see who’s stronger, their rocky faces competing stubbornly with the winds to see who will break first. If you see Everest in IMAX 3D as I did and as I suggest you try to do if it is playing in a true IMAX theater near you, these expanses will overwhelm you and haunt you long after the movie ends.

The other expanses central to the story are the expanses you see when you look into another person’s eyes. As often as the camera zooms out to take in the magnitude of the Himalayas, it also zooms in to peer into the eyes of the mountaineers, their irises like universes unto themselves, universes tested by the mountain. William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s smart script sketches Everest’s characters quickly to catch your interest and shades them in slowly so that as they all make their way up the mountain and the dangers increase, every victory, every close escape, and every loss matters immensely. When the screen is filled with the characters’ eyes, we see every dream being tried on the climb and everything at stake for each of them.

The other expanses central to the story are the expanses you see when you look into another person’s eyes. As often as the camera zooms out to take in the magnitude of the Himalayas, it also zooms in to peer into the eyes of the mountaineers,  their irises like universes unto themselves, universes tested by the mountain. William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s smart script sketches Everest’s characters quickly to catch your interest and shades them slowly so that as they all make their way up the mountain and the dangers increase, every victory, every close escape, and every loss matters immensely. When the screen is filled with the characters’ eyes, we see every dream being tried on the climb and everything at stake for each of them. Everest is epic and intimate at once.

everest movie hangYou are likely familiar with the details of the 1996 disaster chronicled in the film. This story has been told many times before, most famously in Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. If you don’t know the details of the story, don’t look them up prior to seeing Everest. Not knowing who will live, who will die, and how they will either survive or perish adds an extra layer of tension to the story. If you do know the details, Everest is still rife with tension. There are many theories and explanations about exactly what went wrong on that climb. The power of Everest is in seeing the egos and emotions behind the fateful decisions. The partially fictionalized Everest fills out the story in a way mere facts cannot and gets closer to the truth about “why we climb,” whether we’re climbing actual mountains or metaphorical ones.

The actual mountain, Everest, has never looked better. Portions of the film were shot on location in Nepal—Kathmandu, the Khumbu Valley, Everest Base Camp—and those portions grant the film a necessary sense of place. Most of the mountaineering sections were shot in Italy’s Dolomites, though essential, recognizable sections of the route up Everest—South Summit, Hillary’s Step, Camps 1 and 4, the Ice Fall, the Summit—have been so faithfully recreated, you think you’re seeing the actual route. The IMAX 3D print is so good that, as my friend who attended the screening with me said, “This is the first time watching a climbing movie where I felt like I was outside.” Some of the gear is obviously not from 1996—I suppose you have to get those product placement dollars somehow—but otherwise, this is the most realistic “Hollywood” climbing movie I’ve ever seen (though it’s not really a Hollywood production; it was independently financed).

To Everest’s great credit, the movie doesn’t give a simple answer to “why we climb.” It’s wise enough to know that everyone strives to summit the mountain for different reasons. Beyond the physical strain of climbing, it’s each person’s personal reasons for climbing that ultimately test the expedition. Whether or not they can make it to the top of Everest depends on whether or not they can find common ground. The disaster tests each person’s individual resolve and reveals the faults in their individual motivations. Everest isn’t an inspirational film. How could it be, given the historical facts? Everest is complicated. It’s a thinking man’s “men and women on a mission” movie with enough high alpine action to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. See it in IMAX 3D if you dare.

Elijah Davidson is a native of North Texas, but since graduating college, he's spent most of his time in places much more sympathetic to getting into the wilderness, including Glacier National Park, which will forever be one of the places his heart calls "home." For now, he and his wife live in the Denver area, and they get up into the mountains as often as possible. He is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society and a founding member of the Council of Pie.

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