Peaky on the Peak
In the early Autumn of 2008, a bunch of friends and I decided to spend our day hiking up to the Al-Archa glacier, at the top end of a valley in a national park just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The hike itself took several hours, through forests, across rock fields, and up hillsides. Pretty soon we were starting to feel the effects of the altitude and later on fatigue became an issue, too. Eventually we reached the bottom of the last slope before the ascent to the glacier itself. And I said no, I'd wait for the others here: maybe I could've made it up there, dignity intact, but getting back down? A different matter. I knew I was on the edge of my limitations, and sometimes wisdom is just knowing when to turn back, or at least stay where you are.
This is probably why a film has never been made of my life (something for which I suspect we should all be very grateful), especially not one like Baltasar Kormakur's Everest, which teaches us… well, a number of things, I suppose. That the tops of mountains are not places for idle mucking about, that once you make a plan you really ought to stick to it, and that it's all very well trying to be a nice guy, but…
Based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster (I don't think that constitutes a spoiler), the film focuses on an expedition led by Kiwi mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced climber famous for getting paying clients up to the summit of the world's highest mountain and bringing them back down safely – a hand holder, in the slightly dismissive estimation of his friend and business rival Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a more pragmatic view of the trade. Also on the expedition are various characters with their own reasons for wanting to make this most perilous climb, including tough Texan Beck (Josh Brolin).
The most climbing I usually do is walking up the stairs to the balcony seats at the cinema, so simply learning about what it takes to get up Everest would be an engrossing and enlightening experience for me, and to begin with that's what Everest is. Clarke gives a slightly ominous speech near the start, reminding everyone that the top of Everest is called the death zone for a reason, but for the most part there are only the slightest hints of what is to come: there may be quite a few competing teams looking to reach the summit at the same time, and the weather reports might look slightly iffy, but there's nothing really to suggest the horrors that follow.
Everest is being advertised as an adventure film, while my landlady suggested it was a disaster movie. I don't really agree with either of those descriptions: for me this is a horror movie, plain and simple, with the mountain itself in the role of the monster, just as capable of killing and horribly mutilating unsuspecting victims as any less-abstract creation. Or suspecting victims, for that matter: the film takes pains to point out the wealth of experience the people on the mountain take with them, only to find themselves utterly at a loss as the blizzard closes in on them. Apart from the weather, the film suggests that a number of factors were to blame for the tragedy, most of them seemingly innocuous taken in isolation. But what emerges most powerfully is that, on Everest, the most basic human foibles – professional rivalry, administrative cock-ups, poor eyesight, one bad judgement call, even basic compassion and sympathy – these are things that can get you killed.
Climbing calamities are good material for movies, especially the real-life kind, and Everest is up there with the best of the genre – for me the gold standard in this sort of thing is still Touching the Void, and initially I thought that Everest, though interestingly and very competently made, was not to the same standard. But the film executes a slow burn, creeping up on you as it introduces its large cast of characters, until things start going horribly wrong and you find yourself gripped and appalled and yet unable to look away.
Kormakur's handling of a complex, multi-stranded narrative is the really outstanding thing here, but the visual effects are, needless to say, impeccable, and the director is well-served by what's pretty much an all-star cast: as well as the people I've already mentioned, there is solid work by Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, and several other less-well-known names. Keira Knightley plays Rob Hall's pregnant wife, back home in New Zealand, which to be honest is a fairly thankless role, but even so she makes a decent job of it. And the film also contains a number of moments and sequences that I think I'll remember for a long time – there's a moment where the moment, late on, when the Nepalese air force attempt to send a helicopter up to one of the higher camps on Everest in order to evacuate an injured climber, which initially fails simply because the climbers are higher than the vehicle is physically able to fly. Like nothing else, this brings home the sheer scale of the altitudes and dangers involved.
As well as Touching the Void, Everest is already starting to pick up comparisons with Gravity, another film about struggling to survive in an almost definitively hostile environment. To be honest, I'm not sure they have that much in common, and I don't think Everest is quite up to the standard of that extraordinary film – but it is brilliantly made and assembled. Entertainment is probably not quite the word for it, but it's still extremely worthwhile viewing.