Thursday, September 17, 2015

An adventure that scales major heights

It's people vs. the mountain in a dizzying Everest.
Take a bunch of actors with bushy beards that conceal their identifying features, dress them in bulky snow gear, cover their noses and mouths with oxygen masks and make them wear goggles to reduce glare from the sun. Do that and you'll be making a movie in which it's not always easy to tell one character from another.

That's what happens in Everest, the true story of a guided expedition that tried to scale Everest in 1996. You may have to hang around for the end credits to make sure you've gotten the actors straight.

Normally, that would be grounds for failure, but director Baltasar Kormakur's 3D IMAX adventure into mountainous terrain effectively builds tension around harrowing set pieces and spectacular scenery.

The movie also has a point: Everest can make a mockery of human ambition. You look at the steep precipices, the tangle of ropes and litter left by previous climbers, and rock faces that seem alien to human life, and you wonder whether the mountain isn't the movie's loudest voice: Everything about Everest says that people don't belong there.

Working from a script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, Kormakur wastes little time trying to flesh out a story that can be summed up in a few words: Folks climb, the weather turns bad, not everyone survives.

Confusion not withstanding, it's possible to provide a Who's Who in this Himalayan adventure.

Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall, the leader of the expedition and the closest the movie gets to having a main character.

At the outset, Clarke -- who projects good humor and climbing competence -- leaves his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), and heads to Nepal to join colleagues who also work for a company that helps climbers reach the summit.

Included in the cast are Sam Worthington (as another member of the team); Emily Watson (as the person who holds down operations at the base camp), and Elizabeth Debicki (as the team doctor).

Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Scott Fischer, a tour guide who joins forces with Hall to make the climb a bit easier. Ingvar Sigurdsson portrays a Russian climber who seems to think oxygen is for wimps.

John Hawke appears as one of the climbers, a mailman who wants to prove that an ordinary guy can dream big.

Providing one of the movie's more recognizable faces, Josh Brolin portrays a climber who learns that Texas-style bravado isn't much help under dire, blizzard conditions.

The real-life story of what happened on this expedition was written by Jon Krakauer , who recounted the tale in his book, Into Thin Air. Michael Kelly portrays Krakauer, who joined the expedition to report for Outside Magazine. (The screenplay, by the way, isn't adapted from Krakauer's book.)

To the movie's credit, arrival at the summit occurs about half way through. Everest lets us know that the real accomplishment involves more than reaching the top: The triumph rests in getting back down.

The second half of the movie involves the climbers' descent, a trek that turns into disorganized frenzy with the arrival of a ferocious storm.

The movie leaves you to ponder why anyone would risk life and limb to make this sort of climb, but Kormakur (2 Guns) mostly avoids philosophical musings.

Instead, he makes us feel the sting of blowing snow or the apprehension of climbers traversing a narrow ledge or inching their way across ladders that span impossibly deep crevasses.

But Everest offers more than pure action; it also creates understanding of the teamwork required to accomplish this kind of feat and the pain and loss that accompany failure.

And although Everest hardly qualifies as a character study, it conveys the love that professional climbers have for one another. That feeling helps generate emotion, particularly at the end.

Not surprisingly, Everest is about courage and stamina, but it also tells us that sometimes these qualities aren't enough. That's not exactly the message one expects from a big-ticket movie that most people will see because it's the closest they'll ever want to get to this kind of experience.

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