Adapting a true story, especially one containing such tragedy, to film can often be difficult, placing restrictions on the narrative and the approach as the filmmakers try to be as respectful as they can in recounting real-life events. This is especially true in Baltasar Kormákur’s ‘Everest’, a film whose greatest downfall is arguably a result of staying so true to the events of the 1996 disaster, as the scale of the tragedy stretched across so many lives, it is hard to do them all justice in one film.
‘Everest’ tells the true story of the ill-fated 1996 expeditions up Mount Everest, one led by Rob Hall (credited as man who created the business of taking people on expeditions up the mountain) and the other by Scott Fischer. It details their preparation and ascent as well as their struggle to survive as a storm hits the mountain upon their descent. The expeditions comprise of an eclectic mix of climbers including journalists, a doctor and a postman, each climbing for their own reasons and purpose, although these are never explored in much detail.
The cast is mix between the A list and the unknown, but each performs well in a sprawling ensemble without a weak link. Jason Clarke’s Rob Hall may be perceived to be the principle character due to his position as the leader of the expedition and the more often presented home life (the film cuts to his wife, played by Keira Knightley at pivotal moments), but up on the mountain, the attention is afforded to the characters more on a basis of their situation than the people themselves. The film weaves together the different characters’ attempts to journey up and down Everest, cutting between stories and various locations-the Summit, Base Camp, as well as home lives in Texas and New Zealand. Arguably, the multitude of characters can be a little overwhelming, and due to the number of them, most of their backstories and histories are only hinted at through dialogue rather than more deeply explored. Although this may cause the film to be accused of not openly exploring some of the characters enough to elicit feelings from the audience, the nature of a film like Everest means that deep backstories are not necessarily needed for the audience to care. This is a story about survival, about human instinct and relationships, something so primal any audience member watching it can feel for the characters. The fear is felt, as are the moments of hope, so, although you may not care for every character on a personal level, their every success and loss will affect you on a human level.
Part of the reason the film succeeds in impacting the audience is the fact that the film does not over-dramatise its events, allowing them to feel more real. The film balances the coverage of its deaths and tragedies between the slight and the more involved. Some of the characters’ deaths simply involve them slipping out of frame, no dramatic tracking shots watching them scramble helplessly against the fall, no cries from their companions, simply a slip, inciting a brief, sharp pang of fear and loss. There are also more involved and sentimental goodbyes, tearful both onscreen and in the cinema as the various characters accept their fates. Yet, despite the tragedy, the film has its uplifting moments. There are the overwhelming joys when the characters reach the summit, as well as the later relieved happiness as those you had accepted as goners suddenly dig deep and muster up the little strength they have left to keep going.
The camera keeps close with the characters throughout the film, and whilst this does immerse you in their survival efforts, it sometimes seems to take away from the scale of the beast they’re facing. However, the intermittent landscape shots serve to remind the audience of the task at hand and provide perspective. The location shooting makes for convincing viewing in one sense, however the contrast often makes it obvious when filming moved to a studio.
The film is absorbing, providing that you allow it to be, and makes for thrilling and emotional viewing. However the unwillingness to delve further into the psyche of the characters prevents it from becoming quite the epic that it might have been.