Everest review: White-knuckle human tragedy (now in IMAX!)

“Never Let Go.” That’s the tagline on the poster for Everest, the upcoming film about a tragedy that struck a group of mountaineers in 1996. It promises adventure and heroics; a single figure desperately clinging to a makeshift bridge spanning an impossible crevasse, while climbers on either side try to pull him to safety. It’s a stirring sentiment, seemingly cribbed directly from Sylvester Stallone’s ‘90s action flick Cliffhanger, and its own pithy catchphrase: “Hang On.”

Fair or not, movie posters represent a sort of promise between a film and its audience, setting expectations for what you’ll get when you plunk down your $15. Add in the emphasis on IMAX 3D, and Everest is setting the stage for an action-filled tale of human beings battling the power of nature itself. What the movie actually is, however, is something different: a visually stunning and anxiety-inducing trip to the heights of Mount Everest that is never able to deliver on the emotional promises it (and its marketing) make — because real life isn’t actually an action movie.

Everest is largely the story of Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced guide with a baby on the way, who is leading a team of climbers to the top of the mountain. "Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747," he intones while briefing his clients, and he means it: given the height of the mountain, temperatures and oxygen run so perilously low that coughing up blood or straight-up organ failure are common. But Clarke nails a combination of seriousness and big-brother exuberance that galvanizes the team, including Josh Brolin as Texan blowhard Beck Weathers, Eastbound & Down’s John Hawkes as a "regular guy" mailman, and Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper from House of Cards) as reporter Jon Krakauer, who would go on to document the incident himself in his book Into Thin Air. (Jake Gyllenhaal appears in a colorful but ultimately inconsequential role as Hall’s rival guide Scott Fischer.)

The first half of the film is a slow and steady build as the team climbs up to the Everest base camp and then prepares to make the ascent to the summit itself, and it's as effective and stressful as that poster and trailer suggest. The film shot on actual mountains as well as soundstages, dragging the cast to altitudes as high as 16,000 feet, and the film reflects the struggle. You can feel the cold and isolation, the use of 3D adding a substantial undercurrent of terror when characters climb a ridge where a few feet either way could result in a fatal fall. There are a few instances where it’s obvious the actors are working on sets, but for the most part the combination is seamless, and I found myself wanting to check out the 1998 documentary Everest that shot on the mountain using actual IMAX film cameras instead of the remastering process used here.

Everest promotional images (UNIVERSAL)

The spectre of impending doom is just over the horizon the entire first half of the film, director Baltasar Kormákur ratcheting up the tension mercilessly as Hall and his crew reach the top of the mountain — and that’s when disaster strikes in the form of a sudden storm. It’s when I expected the merciless dread of anticipation to give way to the death-defying thrills the film seemed to promise, with the stock — but effectively drawn — characters all in play.

The spectre of impending doom looms over every moment

But Everest can’t meet the expectations it sets throughout its first half, and instead of the inspiring story of heroics that’s been marketed, we get what really happened. It’s based on a well-documented real-life event, so I’ll avoid specific spoilers, but it goes like this: a bunch of people die. Not all of them, and certainly not all the ones you expect, but they die — and it happens in relatively quick, brutal fashion.

It makes the film feel awkward and off-balance, particularly if you come to the story fresh. Where one expects heroics and a happy(ish) ending, there are tearful final phone calls and grueling close-ups of characters dwindling away in the snow, frostbrite spread across their faces. It turns out that all the character beats in the film’s first half were only there to push the audience’s emotional buttons when the storm strikes. It’s tragedy porn, closer to The Passion than 127 Hours, designed to do nothing other than get the audience emotionally invested and then punch them in the stomach. There’s an argument to be made that the film is like the mountain itself, unreasonable and cruel, but that only plays if it’s a point the movie is actively trying to make — and Everest feels more like a switcheroo than a Lars Von Trier movie.

Everest promotional images (UNIVERSAL)

Granted, a grim march to doom wouldn’t be that interesting of a movie, either, but it does speak to the importance of how real-life tragedies are adapted. No matter how extreme or brutal, events don’t automatically lend themselves to compelling films. They need stories, and stories with purpose; that’s the way we bring order or meaning to a universe full of chaos, and it’s something that’s called out for even more so in a story about multiple people who intentionally put themselves on a pathway to death.

"Man vs. Nature" is quite literally one of the oldest stories there is, and it’s remained timeless for a reason. But outside of some minor fumblings in the beginning, Everest never seems concerned with anything approaching a universal takeaway. Instead, we have a movie that focuses on creating the "experience" of the event — another word touted in the trailers — to the exclusion of resolution or meaning. It’s stressful and unnerving in that sense, and technically impressive, but it also feels like a movie of this scale should be trying harder, and reaching for more. Ultimately Everest feels like a deflated balloon, once swelled with expectations and possibility, only to dwindle away into lifelessness.

Everest opens on Friday, September 18th.