Saturday, 10 October 2015

Everest (2015) - Movie Review

Way back when, long before YouTube put Andy Warhol’s words to their most logical extreme, great feats of physical endurance were usually carried out with some reward of societal achievement backing it: Swimming unfathomably long stretches of water, navigating ungodly deserts and scaling unimaginably high mountains; history has put a lot of weight behind the people who did these things first. Now, humanity seems to have stopped caring as much about discovering new frontiers to conquer (on Earth, at least) and now want to share the experience as much as possible. It could be argued that this idea of hosting events where these previously-superhuman feats are available to the everyman cheapen the challenge of the event itself, but there is a feeling of bringing the world closer together through collective experience that gives it some urgency. This is why the idea of scaling Mt. Everest, barring my own aversion to physical exercise, is weirdly appealing despite the very clear danger involved. Something tells me that the idea is going to be substantially less appealing after sitting through today’s subject.

The plot: Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is a guide for Adventure Consultants, who provide a guided expedition of the titular mountain. He, along with climbers Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck (Josh Brolin), Doug (John Hawkes) and others, make their way up the treacherous peak, but an unexpected storm is closing in. They say that getting to the top is one thing; getting back down is something else altogether.

One of the bigger problems actors have to face, in terms of what goes on in front of the camera, is pulling off convincing accents. Sure, imitating Arnie’s Austrian accent can be fun with the right company, but actually doing an Austrian accent on screen when it isn’t your native way of speaking can easily fall into the realms of pantomime. This is also true for New Zealand accents, which is pretty much the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of Canada in terms of how mocked it is by its neighbours. Considering how this is a film based on a real-life incident involving a large number of Kiwis, it is excusable to be worried from the offset considered the mainly American and British cast. However, here’s where we start on a particularly good note. Emily Watson as Helen, one of the personnel at base camp, and Keira Knightley as Jan, Rob Hall’s wife, both do admirably at pulling off a realistic accent with just the right amount of vocal tics to confirm their nationality but not making it too overblown. Beyond that, we get Aussie Jason Clarke (and no, I will not accept statements of "close enough") who also does well in the lead role, and Josh Brolin and John Hawkes add to the solid supporting cast… even if I wouldn’t exactly call these 'character' performances.

Now, while this is more than a little disappointing, especially considering they cast Gyllenhaal who is one of the best character actors working today and he’s probably the least memorable out of the entire cast, they still work in portraying how gruelling the climb is. They all sell every potentially lethal step and frost-bitten extremity, with Brolin and Clarke making for the most physically intense of the lot. The most emotional performance, however, doesn’t even occur on Everest at all; rather, it comes in the form of a phone conversation between Clarke and Knightley, where the latter emotionally breaks down on screen and makes for one of the few times that the character emotion rings true. It’s kind of bizarre considering how much effort went into keeping events as close to reality as possible, and most of the casting is the polar opposite of traditional Hollywood casting as the real people are occasionally more photogenic than their on-screen counterparts, but this definitely works a lot more as an experience piece than a story piece.

More so than any of the people we see in front of the camera, the real star of the film is cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Totino has built a name for himself by serving as the DP for Ron Howard’s Dan Brown adaptations, a comparison that kind of makes my issues with the writing here rather minuscule by comparison. Here, however, that sense of scale and awe that we got glimpses of in his work with Howard gets put to full use. While studio backlots were used at points, the decision to film on actual mountain locations like Val Senales as well as at the actual Everest base camp helps craft a very spacious portrayal of the titular mountain, not to mention creating real tension once things start to go south, literally and thematically. It may resort to cheap tactics at points, like vertigo-inflicting high angle shots down the side of the mountain, but these are still used to add that extra push to every unsure step taken by our climbers.

However, while the visual experience works well, its effect is weakened a bit by the weak characterisation; it does a good job at portraying what it’s like to climb the mountain, but it’s not nearly as good at portraying what it’s like for these specific people to climb the mountain. Not only that, because this involves staring at a mostly white background, it can feel a tad repetitive at times and it’s understandable if the audiences’ eyes start to glaze over. The slow and deliberate pace created in order to make the climbers’ journey and the feeling of taking it one’s self works well at creating a sense of immersion, but it can also feel like the film is dragging as well. The first half following the initial ascent is where the film is at its best, in terms of visual impact and pacing, but once they start descending and we start losing track of who is still alive, other things start to descend along with them.

However, the weak characterisation could have been easily overlooked; this film is clearly meant to be an experiential sit, and honestly one of the better ones I’ve watched since I’ve started doing all this. Unfortunately, an element of the writing that weighs the script down even more so than the character writing is the lack of effort put into a rather important part of the script: The reasons for the climb itself. If the film is going to make it a point of portraying just how treacherous and life-threatening the venture can be, then it’s important to properly illustrate why anyone would want to risk their life to perform such a feat. For the most part, all we get in that regard is a large glossing-over with “because it’s there”. Sure, it’s understandable that the drive to do something like this isn’t the easiest thing to articulate, but this is a film: Show it! This is another reason why Hawkes might be the only one of the expedition members who is written with an actual character in mind, as he is the only person who seems to give anything equating to a reasonable answer. Basically, it amounts to the idea that if an ordinary person can accomplish something extraordinary, it gives hope that others can do the same. It’s not the most nuanced idea, but it’s still more than we get from the others.

All in all, it’s rare that I’ll actually advocate for a film to be watched in 3D, but I’m willing to go one further: This was made to be viewed on the biggest screen possible as well as in 3D. If you can still make it out to an IMAX screening for this film, then I’d highly recommend doing so. Even if this film is weaker on the writing front, the acting is strong enough to properly convey just how dangerous climbing Everest can be even if it isn’t as good when it comes to justifying such an action.

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