Everest: The Movie

James Brolin as Beck Weathers in Everest. Inspired by the incredible events surrounding an attempt to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain, Everest documents the awe-inspiring journey of two different expeditions challenged beyond their limits by one of the fiercest snowstorms ever encountered by man. Photograph by Jason Broland
Josh Brolin plays Beck Weathers in the new movie Everest, which opens today. Photograph by Jason Boland

For various reasons, the 1996 disaster on Everest retains a mythic status, even though far more climbers have died on the mountain in subsequent seasons, including the sixteen Nepali mountain workers who perished in the Khumbu Icefall in 2014.

Everest is exhausting. Yeah, climbing the mountain takes a lot of energy, but watching the new Universal Studios’ epic 3-D IMAX movie can really drain your batteries.

“Based on a true story” reads the inevitable boiler-plate claim at the outset of the film. Everest chronicles the disastrous 1996 season on the mountain’s South Col route, when five climbers, including expedition leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, perished, thanks to a fast-arriving storm combined with bad decisions about turn-around times and chaotic leadership. And though Jon Krakauer, my longtime colleague and climbing buddy, was not consulted by the filmmakers, the script hews, for the most part faithfully, to the account of the catastrophe in Into Thin Air.

A star-studded cast, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, and Emma Watson, turns in convincing performances as Fischer, Beck Weathers, Jan Arnold, and Helen Wilton, respectively. Some of the snazziest special effects ever marshalled for an action flick capture the realities of cold, wind, hypoxia, and serac collapse. The film is visually stunning, even if in 3-D the landscapes sometimes start to resemble the dioramas in those pop-up children’s books that still beguile credulous kids.

The overriding gestalt of Everest, however, is two-fold: Noise and Stumbling. A steady cacophony of hurricane wind, stentorian shouting, ragged panting, and the relentless pounding of Dario Marianelli’s musical score frostbites the senses. And in lieu of the balletic grace of alpinism at its best, all the personae (including the redoubtable Anatoli Boukreev, Fischer’s hired gun assistant guide, cast as a Russian thug out of an early James Bond movie) spend the whole film lurching, staggering, flailing, tripping, and floundering from one ill-considered stance to the next. (Climbing Everest sure don’t look like fun!)

Although Krakauer was not consulted, as indeed was not legally required, he’s cast as a character, played as a smirking know-it-all by Michael Kelly. Hall and Fischer trade accusations: “I didn’t steal your journalist!” Krakauer/Kelly grills the combatants about the “why?” of their Everest ambitions, puncturing their facile rationalizations. And in one wholly fictional and potentially libelous vignette, during the fatal storm Boukreev barges into Krakauer’s tent, crying, “Jon, I need help!” Krakauer/Kelly rolls over in his sleeping bag, protesting, “I can’t! I’m snowblind!” (In Into Thin Air, Krakauer makes it clear that Boukreev never spoke to him as he tried to organize an emergency effort in the night, and that “I never learned of [the] rescue plan.”)

As someone thoroughly conversant with the events of 1996 on Everest, I still found myself confused by the action. Who is that screaming into the ear of whom? Let’s see, yellow parka—that must be Doug Hansen. For anyone coming to the movie afresh, the drama must seem as faceless and impersonal as the Normandy invasion.

This is Hollywood, of course. Director Baltasar Kormákur tries to wring heartbreak and redemption from the genuinely tragic last words exchanged via patched-in radio call between a pregnant Jan Arnold and the dying Rob Hall, and from Beck Weathers’ miraculous self-rescue and subsequent spiritual resurrection despite losing both hands and his nose to frostbite. It doesn’t quite work, despite Marianelli’s violins.

Renan Ozturk looking good during the long descent descent from the summit back to the portaledge camp after 17 hours on the move; Photograph by Jimmy Chin
Renan Ozturk looking good during the long descent descent from Meru’s summit back to the portaledge camp after 17 hours on the move; Photograph by Jimmy Chin

Everest inevitably invites comparison with Meru, the low-budget film about the landmark ascent of the iconic peak in the Garhwal Himalaya by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, which debuted nationwide last month. Meru is one of the finest climbing films ever made. And it’s a genuine documentary, not a historical drama. If you want to see climbing at its most astonishing, and drama at its most genuinely wrenching, see Meru. It’ll leave you exhilarated rather than exhausted.

Everest Revealed: Learn about the Sherpa experience on Everest in photos by Renan Ozturk >>

David Roberts covered Everest regularly for National Geographic Adventure, including a 2003 feature saluting the five most pathbreaking expeditions during the previous 50 years. He is also the author (with Conrad Anker) of The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest and (with Ed Viesturs) of The Mountain: My Time on Everest. His new book, Alone on the Wall, written with Alex Honnold, comes out next month.

Comments

  1. Mary
    Lincoln nebraska
    September 19, 2015, 12:11 am

    The family next to me at the movie was going to Nepal in 2 weeks. The little boy looked sick and his sister was white I pray the dad comes back safe from his climb and that the kids were okay thinking about the danger facing the father and his possible death . Maybe too much

  2. Andrei Toma
    Bucharest, Romania
    September 19, 2015, 4:19 am

    Fully disagree. Movie is not following Krakauer’s book, but the real chain of events. (“Into thin air” events and stories, as we all know, were discredited by most of the survivors of the 1996 disaster). Krakauer is a character because he was there and the key points of his behavior that day on the mountain are shown.
    Overall, there is no confusion , no cacophony of any kind but really good audio-visual effects as the drama of that day is also very well captured. The Hollywood heart-breaking effects are kept to a minimum.
    Everest 2015 it’s an epic movie which shows in great depth and accuracy the events of the day and the way people involved reacted to what happened.

  3. Weston DeWalt
    Camino, California
    September 19, 2015, 9:42 am

    I await the lawsuit.

  4. […] journalist David Roberts, who covered Everest regularly for National Geographic, gives the film’s special effects a thumbs up — “the snazziest special effects ever marshalled […]

  5. Eric
    Boston
    September 19, 2015, 2:49 pm

    Read the book…was elated about the release of a major motion PICTURE. Like with anything “Hollywood”, how can (one) relate the details of such a harrowing climb and devistating decent in under 3 hours. You simply cant.
    The story is told, in dramatic effect to get the point across within the realms of popularity. Given this fact, let us not “dump” upon the marvels of how it is presented, but how this story is coming to light for many people for the very first time. Food for thought. Plus..C’mon…THIS is what 3D was meant for!!!

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    September 25, 2015, 10:02 am

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  7. Guy Montag
    Youngstown, OH
    September 25, 2015, 10:50 pm

    I agree that the documentary “Meru” is a great movie. A couple of unexpected twists, great photography. Saw it with my boy a few weeks ago. Well worth seeing; better at all levels than “Everest”.

  8. Guy Montag
    September 25, 2015, 10:54 pm

    “Everest” is a decent film (needed to be 2 1/2 hours; a lot of story was left on the cutting room floor). I saw “Meru” a couple of weeks ago with my boy. I agree with David that it’s a great film. A couple of “plot” twists I didn’t see coming.

  9. Guy Montag
    Youngtown, OH
    September 25, 2015, 11:33 pm

    I initially agreed with Roberts that Kormákur took dramatic license with the tent scene where JK refuses to help Anatoli Boukreev rescue his teammates. But, I just listened to a 2002 interview with the climber Simone Moro (Anatoli’s partner who survived the avalanche that killed him in ’97 on Annapurna). Moro said @39:27 that Anatoli opened JK’s tent asking for help and JK replied ‘I’m not a guide” and closed the tent. No wonder Kormakur’s not worried about being sued for libel!

    Here’s the link to the interview: https://archive.org/details/SimoneMoroJohnMeekInterview2002

  10. Jonathan
    Arabia
    January 22, 2016, 5:04 am

    Movie should have been titled “The Rob Hall Phone Call”.

  11. Chad
    Utah
    February 17, 2016, 6:05 pm

    I have to disagree as well. Please watch the documentary on Netflix about this fateful group in 1996 with the real people who lived through it. I thought the movie did an exceptional job at coming as close to what they (Netflix Documentary) said happened. You write this like it is another guns blazing unrealistic account from a typical Hollywood backed movie when, regardless of the book, follows the story extremely closely based on the documentary. The documentary has Rob Halls wife and Beck Weathers speaking to the accounts of what happened.