Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Everest


It's quite unfortunate, really, that Everest the film offers almost none of the spectacle, awe and horror that Everest the mountain has in bucket-loads. Mount Everest is Earth's highest mountain, an almost incomprehensibly enormous area of the world that is loaded with mystery and excitement and terror. Everest the film is just, well, dull. That's not to say the film is never interesting, in fact it begins with genuine promise and somehow manages to pull things back slightly towards the end, but everything in between falls flat on almost every level. The film's biggest curse is something it shares with the actual 1996 Everest disaster that this film is based on; there is just too many people on the mountain.

Everest offers an abundance of characters, but doesn't take the time to define them or make us appreciate them. It is more content to show them to us at the beginning, give some a little more screen time than the others (mostly to make us aware that they will have some form of fate by the time the film finishes), then let them head up the mountain without giving us anything to really care about. Once the first storm hits and the expedition starts taking turns for the worse - about an hour or so into the film, by the way - the characters all pull their hoods and masks up, bring their goggles down and are bombarded with frame-blurring snow. And we immediately lose track of whatever's going on up there. A motherly figure back down at Base Camp is used to talk to the mountaineers in order to try to give us some sense of who is where and what is happening, but it just isn't enough. We'll have a scene with two characters, cut away to something down at Base Camp, then return to the previous two to discover they've been joined by five others, and we can't tell who they are. It could be argued that this is symbolic of how the situation was at Base Camp, but the film doesn't focus enough on Base Camp for that argument to stick. It just makes the already thin story become incomprehensible.

Everest's lack of character definition wouldn't be too bad an issue, though, if the film offered an interesting story or intense, compelling action. But it has neither. The story remains as basic and simple as "some people are stuck on a mountain" and the weak characters and sketchy pacing forbid it from becoming anything more. Everest's plot is simple, yes, but if done correctly this wouldn't have mattered. Film isn't about how much story you tell, but rather how you portray the story that you are telling. For example, the fantastic Mad Max: Fury Road earlier this year had a story on the same simplicity as Everest's, yet it makes this work by using smart, intricate character development and excitingly innovative action sequences. It made us care about the characters so that when disaster does strike, the stakes raise monumentally because we are interested in the people involved. It's difficult to care about the outcome of a snowstorm when you don't care about the people trapped in it. The fact that Everest is based on a true story almost makes this complete bypass of character development insulting.

I feel as if this film would have benefited more if it offered a threat beyond people slowly freezing to death. This is, after all, a story of people attempting to scale the highest mountain in the world, yet the sheer height of Everest is scarcely looked at. Instead, the threat lies in hypothermia and decreasing oxygen levels. It just doesn't use its set piece to its advantage, which is a real shame because what a set piece Everest would be if done right. Rather than spread its story across about nine characters getting cold and running out of oxygen, it could have focused on one or two people and followed their journey up and down the mountain, allowing them to talk about themselves and each other to build their character while using Everest's insane height as a focal point for the film's action and intensity. It might offer less in terms of the human survival theme that Everest is clearly trying to get across, but it just would have been more exciting. For a film about people scaling the highest mountain in the world to feel tame and, frequently in the film's first two acts, boring shows that these themes aren't coming across and its characters simply aren't invigorating enough to make this story worth telling.

But that potential alternative story line would risk cutting back on one of the few things Everest has going for it; the acting. With its multitude of characters come a multitude of actors, each doing a fantastic job of delivering the dialogue from a rather stale script. Kiera Knightley and Robin Wright stand out as the wives back at home, acting as rare sources of emotion for the film, while Jason Clarke gives an excellent performance as the film's central character (?). Emily Watson also works well as the mother figure down at Base Camp, but even still her character is muddled. She is first shown to care about the climbers, only to later act as if its just a business to her, before breaking down in tears whenever the smallest thing goes wrong. Slip ups like this just worsen a group of characters that are already suffering from a lack of individuality. Everest starts promisingly, the climbers are at Base Camp within the first ten minutes, giving the impression that this is a film that will move quickly. But then everything grinds to a halt, and the film has to try and jump start itself again to keep things moving. It struggles significantly, and there's no real tension until a helicopter sequence in the film's final act, finally offering something compelling but only once a climber has left the mountain. Again, I can't help but feel a lot of this comes down to every character being essentially replaceable with any of the others.

I know the main argument, though. "You don't go and see a disaster film for strong character work". Yes, I agree, but you still need something there. Everest is impressive visually, a good job has been done to give the impression that these people are indeed up Mount Everest when, in fact, most of the footage wasn't shot anywhere close to it. But even then, the scale and terror that this beast of a mountain offers isn't represented well enough. Besides some wide sweeping shots from above and one early scene taking place on a ladder above a crevice, Everest is frequently framed in close up. The scale of what's taking place is never shown clearly enough, and never reinforced by the character's emotions. A powerful true story becomes lost among a multitude of characters so poorly defined that it's almost impossible to care who makes it down alive. That is, of course, if you can even tell these people apart. Everest has made for the most disappointing film of the year thus far. It had so much to offer, but wound up about as dull as actual Everest is tall.

To Summarise: Everest is well acted, and may offer flashes of wonderfully dizzying cinematography, but it's weighed down heavily by its thin narrative, nonexistent character definition and an almost total lack of threat or tension.


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