Snowflakes whip horizontally so fast you can hardly see them, and over a crevasse on the world's tallest mountain, a climber grips for his life, dangling above disappearing blackness. This is Everest, the newest film from Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns), and while the director excels at creating suspenseful set-pieces, the script sometimes fails its human characters in favor of putting the spotlight on the mountain itself. Framing the peak in all its grandeur (and perilousness) is to be expected — it's freaking Everest, after all — but I wish that didn't mean doing its human co-stars such a comparative disservice. There are some heart-pounding moments on display here, and overall it's a mostly enjoyable ride, but the movie doesn't quite ascend to the pantheon of great disaster films to which it seems to aspire.
Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall, a veteran climber who attempts to lead a group of paying amateurs to the summit. Some of these include the Texas windbag Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a repeat customer who didn't quite make it to the top last time (John Hawkes), journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), and Hall's rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who's leading his own team to the top at the same time. The movie doesn't give us much more information about those characters than the descriptions I just provided, and its biggest weakness is that even with a two hour run time, it doesn't take the time to make them feel like real, fleshed out people. (And they certainly were, considering the movie is based on a true story.) Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, and a few others stay behind at basecamp while the team makes the ascent, and tragedy strikes when a massive blizzard blows in, cutting some members off from the group and leading others to their doom in the icy cold.
Rob's wife has a baby on the way, and Keira Knightley makes the most out of her few scenes, with her fraught phone conversations with Clarke serving as some of the film's most effective emotional sequences. Similarly, Robin Wright has about five minutes of screen time as Beck's wife, her chilly demeanor when he misses their anniversary giving way to grim determination to bring her husband home after she hears about the storm.
Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino regularly capture astonishing shots of people in the foreground with an entire mountain range looming in the background, and when things go south, they frame close-ups with faces practically standing in for mountains themselves, often taking up the full IMAX image. While I wouldn't describe the 3D as necessary (it almost never is), it is surprisingly effective a number of times here, especially on the few occasions in which Kormakur swings his camera overhead to look down on the climbers, a death drop only steps away as the mountainside plunges off into the snowy abyss. "He might as well be on the moon," Knightley says at one point, and one of the film's biggest strengths is the depiction of Mother Nature as a dispassionate, brutal force with no regard for the lives, families, or dreams of the puny humans tempting their fates in conditions no one should ever be bold enough to think they could endure.
Everest is a solid throwback actioner, and it's not without its fair share of heart-wrenching drama, but there's a much better film buried in here somewhere, one that actually takes the time to fill out each of its supporting characters instead of leaving most of them out in the cold.