The Great Lie at the Peak of Everest

everest-posterIn recent years I’ve often used the term “spectacle” as a critical slur when it comes to CGI scenery over substance.

But there’s reason I get on my soapbox about moviegoers’ increasing addiction to grand cinematic (usually CGI) imagery, and it’s not just because a growing number of popular films spend so much time and budget on money-shot visuals and so little on characters, story, or themes. It’s because spectacle doesn’t just dazzle, it seduces. And in that seduction, it can deceive, delude, and betray.

Anymore I cringe when I hear some hack refer to Hollywood as “The Dream Factory”—not because I don’t think films shouldn’t ever contain hope and inspiration or even escapist fantasy or stress-relieving comedy. It’s because those things should always be earned and supported by strong, multi-dimensional films.

But if you let children vote for what they want for dinner, they’re gonna choose candy and cupcakes most nights. And in the past 50 years, corporate Hollywood has come to increasingly let the audiences’ box-office vote become the only voice the Industry listens to. So we’re not getting escapism and empty-calorie dreams once in a while for dessert—we’re getting them for nearly every (at least mainstream Cineplex Hollywood) meal.

We’re all aware of this when we watch a Jurassic Park or Avengers or Fast and Furious movie. Think of those as Hostess snack cakes—everyone knows what’s in them when they buy and eat them; everyone knows they’ll get a sugar rush and later a stomachache. The problem is that our steady diet of empty cinematic calories, usually in the form of awesome CGI grandeur, has numbed us to our own addiction. We ingest so much spectacle, we’re no longer consciously aware of what it does to us.

5c4ccae1-0f5f-478f-985d-d7ce8d88c9cf-2060x1236Which brings us to this fall’s Everest, a sometimes thrilling, sometimes shattering dramatization of the 1996 deaths of eight climbers on Mt. Everest due to a sudden deadly storm and a series of human errors.

The new film version is not based on Jon Krakauer,’s 1997 book Into Thin Air—in fact, it often noticeably points a finger not so much personally at Krakauer, (who, of course, was in the ill-fated climbing group) but at how the lucrative spotlight his Outside magazine article could provide, thus pushing the commercial expedition leaders to take more risks in order to avoid the PR disaster of not getting their paid charges to the top.

Everest has its strengths, including a naturally gripping second half and uniformly solid performances from folks like Emily Watson, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhall, Robin Wright, and especially Jason Clarke as Rob Hall, the New Zealander owner of and lead guide for Adventure Consultants, and Keira Knightly as Rob’s worried, pregnant wife Jan back home.

But its primary strength is also its greatest weakness: stunning, jaw-dropping images (some real moving footage, some computer-animated still photos, some pure CGI) of the top of mountain, captured in roaming, reverent helicopter shots that, of course, could not have been taken from any helicopter. Hollywood just happens to love films like Everest (and this season’s The Walk and even The Martian) because people leave the theater and set aside things like weak pacing or shallow characterizations and instead rave to friends, “Omg, you have to (pay a lot more to) see this in 3-D on IMAX!”

death-on-the-mountain-4-stories-more-shocking-than-the-everest-movie-609290And it’s true—on IMAX in 3-D those shots of the mountain from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, cinematographer Salvatore Totino, the visual effects team, and mountain-climber and second unit director of photography Kent Harvey (who was filming on Everest this past April when avalanche killed around 20 climbers and sherpas and shut down the mountain for the year), don’t just fill the giant several-story screen and nearly your entire field of vision, they fill your being. You gawk and gasp in the dark at how G-D big the mountain feels on the screen, as if the entire weight of the Earth is towering over you. It has such mass—historical, metaphorical, cultural, even spiritual–you can almost sense a gravitational pull at your soul from that towering, threatening mass of stone and snow set against a brilliant blue sky.

That overwhelming wowsa effect becomes both the film’s appeal and its problem. In fact, that very appeal is the problem. Because as those interested in Everest climbing in the past 20 years or specifically the ‘96 tragedy know, one of the biggest dangers in ascending the peak these days is that the route is over-crowded with hundreds of people paying sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to guides to get them, usually in massive groups of dozens of climbers, to the top and back down during a very narrow window of weather compatibility.

635781677285450154-Everest-Review-EMGN2The first commercial expeditions to the summit began in 1993, and one of the main points of Everest is supposed to be that within a few years the combination of increased climber traffic, the relative high-attitude inexperience of many climbers, and the growing competition for paying customers among expedition companies all contributed—along with the storm, of course—to the 1996 deaths.

The film’s script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy spends its first half hammering home (with some expository clumsiness) all the physical dangers of climbing Everest, from the shifting ice shelves and crevasses to the deadly cold and lack of oxygen in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet. And yet we’ve all known people who, if you tell them how dangerous something is, light up with a renewed desire to do it. That same effect is at work in Everest: the more the film’s characters inform us of the risks, the more thrilling the viewing experience becomes. And yes, the second half of the film—when things start to go wrong—is plenty riveting.

Everest-Gallery-03Narratively, Everest is centered around three primary characters: Clarke’s clear-eyed and calm leader, Hall; Brolin’s blustery Texan blow-hard, Beck Weathers, whose swaggering Lone Star braggadocio may have gotten him in over his head; and Hawkes’ sad-sack and seemingly frail postal worker Doug Hansen, making his second and final attempt at the summit after failing the year prior. (Although he’s arguably the biggest star on the poster, Gyllenhall’s Scott Fischer, a grinning, laid-back dude guide, has mostly a tangential presence.)

(Normally I’d feel squeamish when negatively short-handing these characters based on real people, some of whom died on the mountain. But I’m not here to evaluate Everest on its accuracy, particularly in terms of the motivations and/or missteps of the real-life victims—especially when over the past two decades there’s been plenty of hand-wringing and finger-pointing among the survivors as to who did or did not do what. No, let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about the real Hall, Weathers, Hansen, or Fischer, or their real-life actions. I’m only talking about a movie and actors playing those characters as written in a Hollywood script, and what that movie is intentionally and unintentionally saying to us.)

maxresdefaultdEverest spends much of its first half making cases for why each of these men wanted to reach the summit: Weathers perhaps out of some need to pit his ego against something slightly bigger; Hall making his fifth ascent in order to build his expedition business; and Hansen seemingly in order to achieve some sort of personal goal (to feel he’s accomplished something important) and be an inspiration to young grade-school students back in his hometown. Needless to say, each of those three main characters runs into trouble near the top.

(There are *SPOILERS* ahead, in case you haven’t seen Everest, read Into Thin Air, or don’t know how to work the Google or a Wikipedia.)

The film clearly suggests that despite his yearning spirit, physically Hansen had no business being on the mountain, and that Hall tragically let both his desire to build a good ascent-record reputation for his Adventure Consultants and his personal empathy and sense of responsibility for Hansen’s situation lead him to make risky decisions that eventually led to both his and Hansen’s deaths.

everestOnscreen, Hansen’s is handled silently and disquietingly quickly—it’s almost off-handedly haunting. On the other hand, Hall’s slow, frozen fate on the side of the peak—all while still in radio contact with both base camp and his wife via satellite phone—is a drawn-out, heart-rending gut-punch thanks primarily to Clarke and Knightly’s powerful performances. (Keira frickin’ Knightley: Just plain great in everything.)

Weathers, however, miraculously survives being left for dead overnight on the mountain—awaking (frostbitten and disoriented) to somehow walk back down to camp on his own. In many ways, it’s because of Weathers’ triumphant survival—not the deaths of Hall, Fischer, Hansen, and three other climbers—that Everest exists. Weathers’ amazing story sticks a bit of feel-good uplift on the end of the otherwise horrific tale. No one these days is going to make a big film full of big-name stars just to have the last act be “and then they all died.” In general, we don’t go to the movies to be scolded—we go to be inspired and affirmed.

AA44_FP_00007R.jpgIt’s Hall and Hansen’s deaths and Weathers’ survival that lay at the heart of the deeper, existential problem with the film Everest. Everything on the script page says the film should be a searing, angry expose not just of the dangers of commercial overcrowding on the mountain, but of the arrogant, reckless need of some (often rich) people to prove something to themselves by paying someone else tens of thousands of dollars to spend weeks leading them up a mountain so they can stand for a few minutes in a place they have no business whatsoever being. This film should scream, “This is stupid! Do not try it at home!”

And yet, of course those soaring, terrifying looks at the mountain—all that 3-D IMAX splendor—undermine any such message. That’s the almost invisible effect anymore of big-screen movie “magic”: No matter what a script may be trying to tell our heads; our hearts, our souls, our eyes are being stunned and swept away by all that visual splendor. And in general, humans tend to feel and believe what our eyes and hearts (not our heads) tell us. Yes, the starkly beautiful scenery is there to remind us why climbers go for it, but in movies the images almost always commandeer the ideas.

JS71340861Hall, Hansen, and Fischer’s lonely deaths should support the argument that climbing Everest just to do it, just because it’s there, is not just foolish but wastefully destructive. Instead, the film puts an emotional beat on Hansen’s plea to Hall to help him reach the top “for the children,” to inspire them to go after their “impossible dreams.” In doing so it wraps Hansen’s death in tragic, misguided nobility instead of pathos.

Meanwhile, Weathers’ Texas-sized will to live (as personified by Brolin’s bigger-than-life presence… and head) can’t help but underscore the opposite message: There is something in the human spirit that needs to test itself against the biggest most daunting natural challenges, where the greater the danger, the richer the emotional reward.

I doubt anyone involved in the making of Everest wants it to play as an advertisement for climbing Everest. But their cautionary intentions are repeatedly subverted by the film’s staggering vistas. On the big screen there is a siren quality to that image of the mountain; so majestic, so imposing, so crystal-clear in its pristine CGI form, spread out over the IMAX. It cannot help but dare you to want to defy it. Something so daunting cries out to be conquered—even if you are paying someone else to help you become the 4,000th person to do so.

The film’s poster may say, “The most dangerous place on earth,” but the similarity to Disneyland’s motto isn’t far off: the accompanying image of the peak says, “I want to be there.” And somewhere someone will watch Everest and—despite all the death, despite the many corpses of climbers that line the route as warning signs—come away thinking, “I need to do that.”

1 Comment to The Great Lie at the Peak of Everest

  1. Neil Dunn's Gravatar Neil Dunn
    November 8, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    From the first part of this review when The Avengers and other sugar-rich movies I frequent, I have found one of my emerging Type II diabetes protagonists. Later in the review, I found this: ” the relative high-attitude inexperience of many climbers” . Ahah, I thought I had found a crucial typo. My mistake-upon reading further, about the high-attitude flock of ambitious amateurs, I think I am with you. Thanks for the review–it crystallized what is going on now vs. the old climbing days.

  1. By on November 8, 2015 at 9:00 am
  2. By on January 7, 2018 at 11:49 am

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

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