Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Writers: Williams Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Martin Henderson, Michael Kelly, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington.
In May of 1996 a group of people attempted one of the hardest feats known to man: reaching the summit of Mount Everest and live to tell the tale. Some members of the expedition succeeded on both counts, while others only one of the two. Not everyone made in back to base camp. John Krakauer, known to readers for penning the book Into the Wild, was part of the group and his experiences became his second book, Into Thin Air, which recounts the same events this movie depicts.
The movie, like most disaster films, can be split exactly into two parts. In the first we get to know the various members of the group, see them bond, and watch as they train around Everest as they prepare for their eventual trek up to the top of the infamous mountain. Anyone even slightly familiar with climbing lingo will be aware that the noun ‘summit’ in this context may also become a verb, a gerund, and a participle, basically at the whim of the speaker. It does get a bit annoying as it makes up a large component of a thin screenplay with a scarcity of lines. The cast is also overstuffed as there are just too many people the camera focuses on and too many stories to keep track of. Between guides and customers (and their families) the cast boasts ten familiar faces and other unfamiliar ones and we, as an audience, never really know who to focus on or care about because the movie never decides for us. We continually shift perspectives and are left more with ‘types’ and archetypes, rather than fully formed characters that matter.
The second part of the film begins when a storm hits the climbers as they are making their way down the mountain and try to reach camp safely. This is also where the film really loses its audience. Although clunky and claustrophobic, until this point the movie was building momentum, even if very slowly, and the scenes at the summit (there’s that word again) of Everest are even a little moving. Once the storm hits is supposed to be when the action really gets going, but all that actually is achieved is messy and total confusion. I get that a storm on a mountain with such a high elevation and such low levels of oxygen would be utter and complete mayhem, but the audience should not be so bewildered that we are more concerned with trying to figure out what it is we are seeing that we are suddenly transported out of the film. These scenes are filmed at night in almost complete darkness with mountains of snow impeding sight. Although accurate, problem is we actually cannot see anything. Characters die or struggle and it’s unclear who things are happening to (add that they are all wearing parkas and masks and it eventually stops mattering altogether, eventually you’ve got to give up the attempt to figure out what you are watching). Things get really messy and not enough emotional resonance is built or created to make viewers care.
The film ends extremely abruptly and awkwardly, further causing distress and frustration. When the credits rolled I felt exasperated because I was hoping for a little more. A lot of criticism can be laid at the feet of James Cameron, but at least in his disaster movie he managed to make people care about the hundreds of people who lost their lives on a boat at the turn of the twentieth century. Kormákur’s assignment wasn’t as grandiose, but he still came up short.
The cast isn’t given much to do and people expecting showy or central roles for stars like Jake Gyllenhaal will be disappointed, as it feels like he is barely in the movie. Even worse are the female roles led by Emily Watson, Keira Knightley and Robin Wright who laughably deliver every single line they have to a telephone. That is literally all they do. I like a good disaster movie, as can be seen with my review a few months ago of San Andreas, but I want to be entertained and definitely I do not want to feel like I am scouring at the screen hoping to gain insight as to what is happening. Unfortunately, this movie just didn’t do it for me.