"Because it's there." The story goes that that quip was George Mallory's response to a reporter when he dared question why anyone would try to summit Earth's tallest peak, given all the mortal danger involved in an attempt. Mallory's answer is a contradiction in terms -- it is both a cop-out and the best possible answer I can think of to explain the human desire to conquer environments, no matter how inhospitable.
Mallory, one of the first people to attempt to ascend Mt. Everest, died on the mountain in 1924. His sarcastic bit of wisdom and foolishness echoes across the decades, and it is uttered word for word in Balthasar Kormakur's Everest by a few jovial climbers preparing to follow in Mallory's footsteps.
Kormakur's tragic adventure thriller is the first feature film attempt to tell the story of the 1997 climbing disaster on Everest, a story many people are already familiar with through author Jon Krakauer's bestselling work Into Thin Air. It takes an entirely conventional approach to such a tale. Much like a climber following a clearly marked trail, it is careful, deliberate, precise even. It gets you where it needs to go, not deviating from the well-worn path for even a moment.
Kormakur, who American audiences will know best from his action fare (Contraband, 2 Guns), wants us to know his characters well so that the stakes are perfectly clear.
So we are treated to a tearful goodbye between expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley). We get the compensating-for-something overconfidence of Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) — Dole-Kemp ’96 shirt and all — balanced with a hushed phone call home to his wife Peach (Robin Wright) as the difficulty of the ascent comes in to focus. There is the ever-present fragility of Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), back for a second try having spent every last dime to get to the top of the mountain, contrasted by the brash arrogance of a competing expedition leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Looming over it all is the mountain itself, at once stunningly beautiful poking in to the sunshine above the clouds and foreboding when the wind begins to swirl or the sun peeks back behind the clouds, its peak only reachable with the help of oxygen tanks, crampons and the most precarious looking ladders, lain flat, that you can imagine.
Kormakur does not seem to have a better answer than George Mallory for what draws people to Everest. The men with experience, Rob and Scott, are making a pretty penny off of the allure of the summit, though as Rob’s decision to leave his pregnant wife behind hints, there is more than financial gain on offer. The people paying Rob and Scott seem to get some therapy (Beck) or validation (Doug) that is, quite literally, not available anywhere else in the world.
It doesn’t really matter that Kormakur is unable to fully reveal his characters’ motivations. What’s important is that he is deeply interested in them, and that he is able to hold their wants and needs up against the awesome, intimidating, deadly presence of the mountain. Immovable force, meet mortals. Chew them up and spit them out, if so inclined.
Everest does many of the things I praised The Martian for not doing — most especially using the woman-by-the-phone effect to ratchet up the audience’s emotional investment in the survival of the characters. In that sense, it is proof that convention — familiar storytelling — can still be plenty effective when employed with craft.
Follow the clearly marked path and you can reach a lofty summit. Sure, the trail trod by many predecessors to Everest is familiar, but it is taken so often for a reason.