Everst features any number of clichés, from dramatic scoring and lingering looks at the airport to teary close-ups and dark clouds over far horizons.
"It's way too late."
-- Rob Hall (Jason Clarke)
"Please don't worry," Rob (Jason Clarke) tells his wife Jan (Keira Knightley). It's April 1996, and he's headed to Mount Everest to lead a pack of clients to the top. Rugged, earnest, and bearded, an experienced climber, he kisses Jan goodbye and then, when he's about to step through the airport door, turns to look back, so briefly.
Jan's a climber too, which means she knows both why she shouldn't worry and also why she should. Jan is also hugely pregnant in this scene near the start of Everest, which makes very clear why you should worry. Even if you haven't read the several source books listed for the movie, based on the real life event most famously remembered in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, you've seen enough movies about mountains and men and wives left at home to guess that trouble lies ahead.
You're encouraged toward this guess by any number of clichés, from dramatic scoring and lingering looks at the airport to teary close-ups and dark clouds over far horizons. More specific clues include the appearance of Krakauer (played by Michael Kelly) and allusions to the pros and cons of commercial climbs. At least one con is the crowding of the mountain, underlined here when Rob's Adventure Consultants runs smack into a couple of other groups, Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), and a 13-member Taiwanese expedition, all competing for space and time on the mountain, where sudden weather changes make windows for ascending 29,029 feet and descending frighteningly brief.
Such changes afflict the teams in Everest, in particular the two American teams. Rob's clients spend an evening at a base camp discussing just why they want to climb, a question posed by Krakauer, the journalist. As the camera cuts around the table inside their tent, Individuals describe their ambitions and fears, hopes and self-images. These include Weathers (Josh Brolin), whose phone calls home suggest his wife (Robin Wright) is less than thrilled that he's gone off ("One ore mountain and I'll divorce you"), Doug (John Hawkes), a schoolteacher who wants to make his students proud, and Yasuko (Naoko Mori), who's climbed the seven other great summits and wants to make this eighth one, too. They nod and sigh, knowing that why they want to climb remains at least partly beyond their capacity to express it.
Why you want to watch them climb is another question. For the most part, Baltasar Kormákur's movie offers familiar answers. Certainly, the individuals' efforts are admirable and absorbing, and the real life aspect might be understood to amplify your interest in this adventure story (these particular stories have also been the focus of numerous studies and memoirs of the 1996 expedition as well as other climbing events and careers).
You might also be moved by the human business, sometimes obscured by climbers' goggles and beards, but emphatically embodied by Rob's coordinator Helen (Emily Watson), who provides lots of teary close-ups, serving as your stand-in, at least until she arranges for Jan to speak to Rob by satellite phone. You can be impressed too by the film's representational efforts, the reproduction of dangerous conditions and the mountain's stunning beauty (though you might also look for representations in documentaries, including a gorgeous recent film, not about Everest, Meru).
It's also possible that you watch them climb because you know they won't survive. The true story reinforces the horrific difficulty, the definitive suffering that defines much of the experience, that makes it enticing, that makes it special, a test of nerve, will, prowess, and ingenuity. For non-climbers, the test might remain abstract, but it can also seem visceral in IMAX 3D, an experience that viewers don't precisely share but might imagine they appreciate. “The last word always belongs to the mountain," observes veteran mountaineer Boukreev (Ingvar Sigurdsson), just before you see pretty much that word, ice and snow, wind and more ice, the daunting implacability of the mountain.
That the mountain is nonetheless rendered legible remakes the experience as entertainment, invites you to observe but not feel the suffering, and invites you to pay for the privilege. Along with spectacular vistas and darkening skies, along with dread, you also consume Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal, movie stars who've survived to talk to interviewers. And so you're reminded why you don't worry for them.