ReThink Review: Everest -- The Question at the Top of the World


Fulfilling a dream or achieving something great often involves sacrifice and taking risks, with the assumption that the size of the goal is proportional to the amount of sacrifice and risk required to achieve it. With business goals, the risks are often financial, while physical/athletic goals might risk bodily harm. Both require sacrificing free time, comfort, peace of mind, other interests, and time with loved ones. And the dangers of failure -- whether financial, emotional, or physical -- could be enormous, possibly even including death. But as we seem hard-wired to believe, the greater the risk/sacrifice, the greater the reward, and we love stories and people who triumphantly confirm this maxim.

However, what are we to make of people who take huge risks and demand enormous sacrifices (often from others) to achieve goals that we deem less than worthy -- or, worse, seem foolhardy, narcissistic, or shallow? That's the unanswered question at the heart of Everest, a gripping 3D thriller based on the true story of an ill-fated attempt to climb the world's tallest mountain in 1996. Watch the trailer for Everest below.

From a technical perspective, Everest is definitely impressive. The cinematography (especially the aerial shots) beautifully captures the harshness of the environment, the consuming whiteness of the snow and ice, and the soaring, imposing grandeur of the peaks themselves, even though the film's 3D effects often made the climbers and their encampments look like toys. Even more impressive is the fact that the digital effects and the set design are largely seamless, where I could rarely tell which scenes were shot on sets with digital backgrounds and which were filmed on actual mountains.

The film ably held my interest for the duration of its two-hour runtime. I enjoyed the calm before the (literal) storm as the climbers make their way to base camp and are prepped on the climb's dangers before mistakes, logistics, weather, tough decisions, and the limits of the human body compound to set the stage for a slowly unfolding disaster. Everest's first-rate cast -- which includes Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, and Sam Worthington -- all give solid, natural, nicely understated performances, despite the fact that the women spend most of the film worrying about and waiting for the men while the sherpas (who perform the bulk of the hard work on the climbs) barely have any lines or individuality.

Still, Everest has a lot going for it, and I'm sure it'll satisfy those looking for a tense, exciting time at the movies. So why did Everest leave me feeling so flat?

For me, it's because the risk/sacrifice to reward ratio of the climbers seems dangerously, almost pathologically out of whack. Climbing Everest means subjecting yourself to possibly the harshest, most dangerous environment on Earth, where a significant portion of the climb is done in the cheerily-named "death zone" where the air is so thin that humans at that elevation are actually dying as their bodies are starved of oxygen, which can lead to bad decision making and irrationality due to the poor functioning of an oxygen-deprived brain. The weather on Everest can be wildly unpredictable, where a seemingly safe window of opportunity to summit can quickly be slammed shut by lethal storms that can make rescue attempts impossible.

Yet when the guides and climbers are asked why they would take such enormous risks (in addition to the climbers paying $65,000 each for the opportunity), none of them has a good reason aside from the cliché of "Because it's there!" Hawkes' character, a mailman/carpenter and climbing enthusiast named Doug Hansen, comes closest by saying that he hopes to inspire kids at a stateside elementary school to believe that seemingly average people can achieve the impossible. However, this seems to have more to do with Hansen trying to compensate for shortcomings and disappointments in his own life. The only woman on the ascent, Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), has climbed six of the famous Seven Summits, so apparently not summiting them all would be bad for some reason? The group's leader, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), has a baby on the way and does not seem desperate for the money. And Brolin's character, a smug Texan named Beck Weathers, later reveals that not only did he not tell his wife (or his two kids) that he was leaving to climb Everest, but that when he's at home and not on a dangerous climb, family life is so crushingly boring that it sends him into a depression. And these are the people we're supposed to root for?

I understand the rewards that can come from physically pushing yourself further than you imagined you could. However, the film makes the point early on that adventure companies, for the right/high price, are willing to take anyone to Everest regardless of their lack of experience or training. Guides like Hall lament how crowded the base camps have become and the presence of so many novices, but as we see in the film, the possibility of summiting/surviving seems to have more to do with weather, luck, and scheduling than wisdom, prudence, or physical ability. While Hall seems more responsible and level-headed than some of the other guides, it's hard to see how his outfit differs greatly from any of the other companies on Everest that are simply out to make big bucks.

What we're left with is the image of Everest as simply another playground for the bored, thrill-seeking rich who have the money to afford yet another highly-catered "experience", like those who pay top dollar for plug-and-play camps at Burning Man or for the "right" to fly to Africa to kill a lion or some other big game while relatively low-paid workers carry the equipment, cook the meals, and clean up after them.

It's a testament to the actors that we care at all about the guides and the climbers, though for me, it was more in terms of thinking, "Sure would suck to be them," while watching them freezing to death on perilous precipices than because I related to them or thought the risks they were taking were in service of a noble or worthy goal. They claim they want to climb Everest "because it's there", but Everest seems to imply that these would-be adventurers are instead searching for something that's missing within themselves. And perhaps whatever that is could be more cheaply and safely found through therapy, and closer to sea level.

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