The highlights of director Baltasar Kormakur’s estimable film are the stunning 3D visuals that capture the hypnotic lure of the headline star – Mount Everest.
One minute, the climbers are tiny pen scratches on a grand rock and snow canvas, the next we are breathless beside them as they stare into the literal and metaphorical abyss.
This commodification of the near-death experience has seen the pristine mountain become a theme park, an elevated waste tip and vast mortuary so we don’t particularly warm to the motley climbers from Adventure Crusades as they turn up in the foothills packed to the gills with banter and beards.
In 1996, this grouping was just one in an impractical and fractious collection of 20 such expeditions attempting to reach the summit and return safely, like the brochures said.
This is a disaster movie, the real-life 1996 expedition on which the story is based providing the necessary tropes. The pregnant wife waiting by the phone (Keira Knightley); the by-the-numbers safety nut who breaks his golden rule; the seat-of-his-pants jock who just can’t say no; the poor postman who has one last chance to summit before his money runs out.
All are blinded by the magic of the mountain. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) throws his caution to the (fearsome) wind. Free-wheeling Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) embraces doom like an old friend. Josh Brolin’s millionaire Beck Weathers confesses that he lives with a low level of depression while at home with wife and kids but comes alive when the air becomes thin.
Writers William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy avoid the temptation to speak in portentous chunks, preferring the nibble and scatter of practical chat. But occasionally they answer the call of their surroundings.
“There is competition between every person and this mountain. The last word always belongs to the mountain,” says one guide.
While life and death is decided by the slightest fraction and the bodies rack up, the film fails to land the necessary emotional punch. This is partly for practical reasons (you can’t tell who’s who behind the face masks) and partly because all this was self-willed. Resignation to the murderous will of the mountain is like an infectious disease among the climbers.
Heroes die, schmucks come home. That’s the blind lottery of Everest.
However, there are no particular heroes or schmucks here. The Icelandic director fails to draw the characters with any kind of depth. But at least he does understand and exploit the impassive malevolence of the mountain to create a breathless and nerve-racking spectacle.
Those armchair adventurers tempted to cough up and go (or, more likely, the reverse) cannot plead ignorance of the perils now.