‘Man versus nature’ movies need to master two things to be effective. First, a sense of place, figuratively transporting us, the audience, into the specific environment, the deadly situation that is displayed onscreen. If we are watching someone face down a tsunami or float abandoned in the middle of the ocean, the movie better not give you any overt reminders that you’re actually in a movie theater, completely safe, able to walk away at any time. Second, these films need a good sense of character. They need to make you care about the people facing these disasters. They are our access point, the human element, and we need to relate to feel truly present. If we don’t care if the characters survive, then no matter how immersive the environment is, you’d be better off watching a nature documentary.
The three best ‘man vs. nature’ films of the last five years, I will argue, are Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010), Sergio G. Sanchez’s The Impossible (2012) and J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (2013). Each use camerawork, sound design and editing to ‘trap’ audiences in a nightmare scenario and never give them a moment of relief until the credits (the one exception being a hallucination sequence in 127 Hours that ultimately works to reinforce my point). Perhaps key to each film’s effectiveness were the gifted actors in the lead roles, whom audiences could strongly identify with and thus put themselves directly into their headspace as they deal with the terrifying apathy of nature. When I look back at entries into this sub-genre that have failed to impress me, like Into The Wild and (just) Wild, my main problem was that I didn’t really sympathize with, and thus couldn’t fully put myself into the shoes of, those central characters.
Everest, for much of its runtime, gets a lot right. It throws viewers onto the treacherous peak from which it gets its title, thanks to sprawling shots of the mountains, little humans dotting the landscape to display scale. Some of the sights of Everest are beautiful and terrifying, awe-inspiring in the truest meaning of the word. The mountain sometimes looks like they belong on an altogether different planet, with rocky plains stretching like oceans toward the horizon. Especially in 3D, there’s a sense of physicality and depth that leaves a lasting impression.
There may be nature documentaries that present similarly grandiose footage, but Everest also has a distinct story to tell, that of a harrowing and tragic disaster that befell a group of climbers in 1996, as they were battered by huge storms while dealing with an inadequate supply of oxygen. I’d recommend not looking up the true events beforehand, though, as a lot of the film’s power comes from not knowing who, if any, will make it off the mountain.
Where Everest differs from all of the films I’ve mentioned previously is that the cast here is an ensemble, meaning that the filmmakers had the monumental task of making the audience identify with several different humans and playing out several different arcs in a two hour span. They go about tackling such a challenge through expert casting, amassing a group of actors who are able to squeeze an impressive amount of humanity out of rather static, typified characters. Josh Brolin in particular plays a proud but deeply depressed Texan with such gusto that you forget that ‘proud but deeply depressed Texan’ is really all there is to him.
The first half of the screenplay also features heavy-handed yet well-intentioned attempts to explore exactly why these people would risk their lives scaling a mountain strewn with the frozen bodies of past climbers. Though this minor stab at thematic depth only last a couple scenes, the conversation that occurs helped humanize the characters as they all come together in Nepal, spend a few weeks climatizing to the high altitudes, and eventually make their way to the summit which many of them feel their whole lives have been leading to.
It’s appropriate but disappointing that the film peaks right as the climbers reach the actual peak of Everest. After that point, all of the movie’s attempted themes or the hints at interesting character relationships (such as the ideological rift between Jason Clarke’s responsible expedition leader and Jake Gyllenhaal’s laissez-faire daredevil), are essentially abandoned in favor of generic Hollywood disaster filmmaking. It isn’t that this final section of the film is poorly made. Fairly tense cutting and fantastic sound design keeps it engrossing. The storm effects, especially in 3D, are intentionally disorienting and visceral.
The big problem is, when you’ve spent the entirety of a movie getting to know these characters, it would be nice to know what’s going on with all of them when their lives are actually at stake. Here’s where the ensemble narrative starts to work against the film. All of a sudden, in the middle of a giant storm, the filmmakers are forced to cut from character to character fairly often, and they’re all on different sections of the mountain. When we’re with a character as they struggle to breath, and then all of a sudden we’re with a different character who’s freezing under a pile of snow, and then, bam, we’re with another character who’s back at base camp, it puts the brakes on the tension and rids the movie of its sense of immediacy and presence.
The worst case is when the movie cuts away from Everest altogether to a nice, quiet bedroom in a different country just so we can see how worried Keira Knightley is about her husband. I guess if it had to be anyone, I’m glad it was Keira Knightley, but these moments are such blatant reminders that we’re watching a movie that they work completely against the sense of immersion the film had successfully achieved on the way up the mountain. Additionally, because everything is eventually covered in blankets and blankets of snow and engulfed in the darkness of nighttime, it becomes hard to tell which characters we’re looking at. “Wait, is that Gyllenhaal or Clarke? And what ever happened to the guy from House of Cards?” It got to the point that there are characters who straight up die in this movie, and I didn’t even know they had died until the abrupt ending.
Remember those two things I said were important in creating an effective nature survival story: a sense of place and a sense of character? The movie starts out with both. We see the grandeur of Everest on a huge scale, but also get close-up glimpses of the alien-like rock formations and steep, sometimes near-vertical slopes. The characters, despite being one-dimensional, feel enough like real people thanks to the talented cast portraying them.
The movie ends, however, with neither a clear sense of place or character. We’re dragged around from area of the mountain to area of the mountain, and it becomes hard to tell where we are due to the white-out effect and the muddled editing. The characters’ unique personalities are completely lost along the way, as most of them can barely breathe though the last forty minutes of the film. The director himself (2 Guns’ Baltasar Kormakur) doesn’t seem to care about the characters when all is said and done, ending pretty much every single story thread anticlimactically.
Overall, Everest is certainly a beautiful and at times a suitably tense and moving man vs. nature story, but it’s ambitious ensemble structure keeps it from being a remarkable example of the sub-genre. Perhaps worth watching for the expertly made climb, it’s just a shame that the rocky descent threatens to kill the whole experience.
Score: 3 out of 5