Intense "Everest" Is Figuratively, Literally Moving

June 1953. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reach the summit of Nepal’s long-thought unclimbable Mount Everest. Six decades later, 4,000 mountaineers have followed in their footsteps. That’s a robust 65 adventurers per year reaching the world’s tallest summit, making the mountain a lucrative space for guides and Sherpas willing to look past its most eye-popping number: 250. That’s how many climbers have died trying, eight of those on May 11, 1996.

That date takes center stage in Baltasar Kormakur’s “Everest,” a star-studded, big-budget attempt to meld nature film and action flick. The results are strong.

Though the story being told here is a gloomy one, the film skillfully balances seriousness and spectacle, its surplus of rousing action beats ensuring that no one regrets the IMAX 3D surcharge.

Jason Clarke (‘Zero Dark Thirty”) headlines as New Zealand adventure company owner Rob Hall, with Josh Brolin (“No Country For Old Men”) and John Hawkes (“The Sessions”) receiving second and third billing, respectively, for their turns as eager Adventure Consultant clients.

After some airport goodbyes between Hall and his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”), he jets off to Kathmandu. Because of the required acclimatization periods, the jaunt will take more than a month, putting Hall’s return for his child’s birth in question. But he promises to be back in time.

It’s at base camp where the film takes stock of the full scope of the Everest industry. Scores of tents teem with adrenaline junkies, writers, and even, surreally, a group of IMAX filmmakers. It’s here that the painstaking mix of on-location shooting and special effects first becomes apparent, illuminating the Herculean efforts of both real-life Everest climbers and those making movies about them.

Although Hall is the pic’s lead, Hawke’s Doug Hansen – everyman postal worker – is its heart, underlining both the bravery and folly inherent in man staring down nature. His climbing of Everest is unlikely in every sense of the word and the actor’s warm, gracious performance is perfect.

Conversely, Josh Brolin is stiff and unlikable as Texan Beck Weathers, essentially reprising his George W. Bush from Oliver Stone’s “W.” His halfhearted performance is a constant reminder of how overcrowded the expansive cast is, one that features a bona fide superstar (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Nightcrawler”) in a one-dimensional supporting role. He plays Scott Fischer, pseudo-rival to Hall.

But the characters never get in the way of the visuals, with the film kicking into its highest gear once the climbers begin their final 12-hour ascent to the summit. Their early morning start is quietly breathtaking, as haunting and beautiful a proxy for the actual experience as anyone could hope for.

Once Hall and company reach the top of Everest, the movie becomes a seat-rattler, dropping characters and viewers both into the middle of a brutal, deadly snowstorm. If not for its tragic real-life implications, the pic’s tagline might have been “Feel The Frostbite.” Baltasar elegantly cuts back and forth between the mountain and those waiting back at camp (Emily Watson, Elizabeth Debicki, Sam Worthington) and it proves an effective way to ground the action. Silence has rarely been so deafening.

Apart from a few instances of shoddy green screen work and noticeably fake snow, “Everest” is believable to its core. The sometimes distracting overabundance of characters feels true to life, mirroring the traffic problems seen on some of the mountain’s most dangerous passageways.

In an era of empty disaster movies featuring unlikable characters (see: this year’s “San Andreas,” or better yet, don’t), “Everest” is refreshing in its earnestness, frequently moving without being weepy. It recalls lesser 90s blockbusters that weren’t afforded the same level of CGI trickery or onscreen talent. Limitations aside, this technical achievement with heart is as widely appealing as any action movie this year.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 18, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Screenwriter: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Elizabeth Debicki, Jake Gyllenhaal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense peril and disturbing images)