dir: Baltasar Kormakur
“Because it’s there” is a terrible reason to do anything.
I would argue that it’s the dumbest reason to do anything in this world, in this life, let alone climb the world’s tallest mountain.
If someone asks you why you’re climbing Mount Everest, I would argue that you need a much better response than that. Perversely, it’s inadequate for me because plenty of people have already climbed the bloody thing, and, it’s killed so, so many people in the attempt.
I am obviously not the kind of person to whom this kind of stuff appeals. To me, and I don’t want to seem unkind to the families of people who lost their lives climbing this mountain or any other mountain, it seems both the height of arrogance and the nadir of stupidity to deliberately put yourself in a horribly dangerous situation for no actual need or benefit. At this stage, climbing to the top of Mount Everest’s only purpose is so that you can say to people “I climbed Mount Everest”.
Even then, I don’t really see the benefit of it. Unless it somehow results in the perfect formulation in bars and clubs of “Hey. I climbed Mount Everest” always leading to “Well, I guess I absolutely have to fuck you, then” it really doesn’t mean that much to me.
The Mountain itself doesn’t care about people. It’s just there, doing its thing, oblivious to the ants that scurry up it each year. All it does is provide these people with hundreds of opportunities and ways to die. It kills you with cold. With weather. With avalanches. With your own mistakes. With its lack of oxygen. With its promise of otherwise unobtainable cachet. It’s a deadly icy candle to a whole bunch of moths that really should know better.
I’m sure the view from up there is amazing. Wait, I know that the view is amazing. I’ve seen photos of it. Even seen 3D movie footage of it. Wow, it’s so, so great. So, huh, now I can go on with the rest of my life.
A whole bunch of people died climbing up Everest in 1996. A bunch of people died in this particular expedition that the flick focuses on, but even since then there have been more deaths in shorter spaces of time. Earlier this year, with the terrible earthquakes that devastated the region in April, twenty or so died in the one day. So why devote a flick to the 1996 “disaster”?
I’m not sure. At first I thought it was because of the presence of journalist/writer Jon Krakauer (in this film played by Michael Kelly), and, naturally, journalists are incredibly important people who need to be celebrated at every opportunity.
Nah, what I meant was I thought this flick would have been based on his book about the ill-fated climb, being Into Thin Air. But no. It’s not based on that at all. In fact, the flick contends that there are elements of his book that are perhaps inaccurate, despite the fact that the dude was there.
He contends that the film is bullshit, but also he resents that he’d previously sold the film rights to his book, and didn’t get a cracker from this flick. Maybe that played a tiny role in his resentment, yes? No? What about the part where the flick contends that when heroic Russian chap Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) was endeavouring to save people, Krakauer whimpered in a tent and claimed he was snowblind and couldn’t help? Maybe that was too bitter a pill to swallow?
And yet there are parts of the flick that are clearly fictionalised, not that it’s really to the story’s detriment. There are a number of scenes where something happens, and you know that none of the people who survived could have seen it, so how was it documented? It’s not what I would call outright fabrication: it’s more like conjecture or filling in the blanks. I’m not sure that there is much that can detract from a story about a climb where many of the participants died. Although, really, if they were going to malign Krakauer, they really should have said outright that he was a serial killer who killed the other members of the expedition because he’s also a cannibal.
Yum yum, kiwis and Japanese food, tasty!
Even if Krakauer disputes what the flick says because it contradicts his own narrative, whether they use his official story or not, the fact is his mere presence there affected events. The leader of one of the teams, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) specifically lobbied to have Krakauer on his team, in effect paying to have him there because he knew / hoped it would be good publicity.
Turned out it was great publicity for Krakauer. Not so much for Hall’s business Adventure Consultants.
There are also clear moments where decisions are made with an eye towards what getting Krakauer to the top or failing to get Krakauer to the top would mean for Hall’s business. And he’s not the only one. His business partner running things from base camp (Emily Watson) says out loud what the thinking is on their business’s reputation versus the outcome on the peak.
These commercial decisions play a big part in the thinking of the various participants, as in there are a lot of decisions either good, bad or neutral made with an eye to the potential impact on revenue. There’s also the incredibly complex logistics of summiting that play the greatest part.
As in, sure, everyone needs oxygen, but how do you get enough oxygen up there? Okay, bottles of oxygen, but how do you get them up there? Who carries them? When every gram of weight matters, how many do you carry, when the more you carry proportionally the more oxygen you’ll need to expend in carrying them? Where do you stash them? And if someone looks dodgy, as in, they have less of a chance of making it than yourself, does that mean you should probably just take that pesky bottle of oxygen off of them since they might not be using it soon?
It seems like a horrible justification for life-and-death moments, but if anything, whether you dispute the version presented here or the version in Krakauer’s book, it certainly played a part. When you’re getting weather reports that say an ice apocalypse is on the way, and your timing window won’t allow for a safe climb, and an American, even more specifically Texan jackass yells at you that they paid you $65,000 for you to get them to the summit, and goddamn you if you don’t, well, let’s see what your decision will be when you’re exhausted, freezing and oxygen-deficient.
For whatever faults his business reasoning might have had, Hall is depicted as an intelligent and caring man. A rival American guide leader (Jake Gyllenhaal) accuses Hall of doing too much hand-holding with the gimps and feebs who pay to be dragged up the mountain. Scott (Gyllenhaal’s character) argues, perhaps legitimately, that the standard of whether someone should be allowed to climb the mountain is whether they are fit and experienced enough to do so. Although business rivals, they are depicted as being perfectly friendly and supportive of each other.
Of course, once the blizzard hits the fan, all the planning, adherence to safety standards, equipment and experience counts for virtually nothing. The amateurs and the professionals; the neophytes and the veterans all die the same way, horribly contorted, frozen solid, far from the ones they love.
The ones they love… Keira Knightley and Robin Wright do a lot of work on the phone as the spouses of two of the guys up the mountain. Knightley’s character is heavily pregnant, and, like all pregnant women, spends all her time sleeping and crying into a phone. I was disappointed there wasn’t a scene where she eats ice cream by scooping it out with a pickle. I’m just kidding, but the character is a dead loss. Wright’s character has an older husband (Josh Brolin) with the very American name of Beck Weathers, and so her work is more of the stoic wife keeping it together for her family type bullshit.
It’s not much characterisation, but I’m not sure how much more of it was needed. Weathers is a fairly stoic chap with an oddly ironic name, but the only morsel of characterisation he offers is that away from the mountain, or any mountain, he suffers from crippling depression. But when he’s mountaineering, he is truly alive.
I hope it was worth it, Beck, I really do.
A quiet chap also struggling up the mountain, humble mailman Doug (John Hawkins) is driven not by a love of mountaineering or extreme bullshit, but of a desire to show other people who have no business climbing the Earth’s tallest peak that they too can attempt the impossible. Kids, his ex-wife, the neighbours, everyone.
Not that they should, mind you, but that they can expend all their money and all their efforts in order to achieve something only the tiniest fraction of humanity will ever achieve (until teleportation is invented, in which case people will just pay a fortune or a kidney and be zapped there and back for five minutes at a time). His character was the closest to a likable one in the whole film. The others are so indistinct, and depicted under such torturous circumstances that it was often hard for me to care, I’m ashamed to admit.
Many, many deaths ensue, but I guess we’re not meant to be focussed entirely on those. Since this is a film and not a documentary about the event, we’re just meant to be focussed on how incredible it all looks, and it does. It was filmed all over the place, including some stuff at the actual mountain, but also on stages and sets, and it all mostly looks seamlessly bleak and horrible.
As it is following the actual story, there aren’t always the screenplay ups and downs you come to expect or hope for. Life doesn’t always follow a comfortable narrative. The ones you think would survive, or should survive, don’t, and it can be because of bad decisions, because of misplaced compassion, or just shitty luck.
There’s no real room for heroism, for noble self-sacrifice, for last minute saves (though someone does survive against the odds, though unfortunately without their hands or nose, and with a lot of their face gone). There’s just this incredible sense of futility to it, a depressing futility that arises when people, humans, regardless of their reasons, say to a mountain “I will conquer you” and the mountain says “Fuck. You” in no uncertain terms. Your kids aren’t going to love a memory of someone they never met because you died doing what you loved 28,000 feet above sea level. You’re just going to be a sad cautionary tale about hubris and poor decision-making.
Mostly what this amazing looking but ultimately hollow film assured me of is that given all the money and promises in the world, climbing Mount Everest is the absolute most awesome, utterly idiotic and completely pointless thing a human can do on this planet. The capacity of our species and its relentless lemming-like drive to render itself extinct never fails to impress me.
Everest is an impressive achievement, but, really, the mountain doesn’t care and neither should we.
7 brave sherpas died bringing you this review out of 10
“You, my friends, are following in the very footsteps of history...” – Everest