Fictional disaster movies have the best of both worlds, piling on the catastrophe without needing to worry about upsetting the relatives of those who perished. They are even free to moralise. The Towering Inferno denounced the hubris of building skyscrapers (“A shrine to all the bullshit in the world!”), without once stinting on the pyrotechnics. Everest may be based on real events but it trades also in the spectacular. It was shot largely in gruelling conditions in Nepal, where avalanche warnings and temperatures of -30°C became the norm for actors who usually only have to worry about where the next chai latte is coming from. Crew members suffered from altitude sickness and equipment had to be lugged to remote locations by yaks. Have you ever tried to keep one of those things away from the catering table?
What the movie can’t very well do, as it was made with the co-operation of some of those involved, is to speculate on what exactly went wrong during an expedition to ascend Everest in May 1996. The contributing factors are clear. Some of the climbers ran out of oxygen more quickly than anticipated; ropes that should already have been in place on the mountain were not, which caused delays in reaching the summit. This led to the group descending several hours later than planned and getting caught in a violent blizzard. For the sake of tact, though, the picture cannot cast even the mildest of aspersions on anyone’s skill or judgement.
The disaster opened a debate about the wisdom of commercialising Everest but this film is hamstrung by having as its main character Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), whose company Adventure Consultants was built on that enterprise. A film that questioned his industry would be perilously close to undermining its protagonist. Even as climbers in brightly coloured jackets are causing a bottleneck at base camp, Rob must be shown to be blameless in his business model as well as in his actions.
After giving a goodbye kiss to his wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), who is six months pregnant with their first child, he heads off to Nepal with his clients. These include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), whose cocky swagger marks him out as the man most likely to be elbowed off the south face when no one is looking; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mild-mannered postman who is making his second attempt to ascend Everest; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has already scaled six of the world’s “Seven Summits”. As she is the sole woman among the climbers and the most nonchalant of the lot, it would be reasonable to expect the screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy to show some interest in her. Reasonable but wrong.
Among the climbers, nothing worse than good-natured grumpiness is permitted. There is mild professional jostling between Rob and a rival expedition leader, Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Rob has been joined on the climb by a journalist who has transferred his allegiance from Scott’s company to Adventure Consultants. When the chips are down, however, Scott and Rob pool their expertise for the common good.
The Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur has form in the area of real-life sub-zero endurance stories: he made The Deep, about a shipwreck survivor swimming through icy seas. But there isn’t much he can do cinematically here except trust in his editor’s cross-cutting between women on the ground (Emily Watson at base camp, Robin Wright as a concerned wife) and stoical men clinging to the mountain as the brutal weather sweeps in. The drama of Everest lies in its close-ups of frostbitten faces contemplating danger, or worse. These certainly make a mockery of the use of 3-D. With the exception of one sequence showing the climbers crossing a rope bridge, 3-D feels about as vital to the film as a grand piano would be to a mountain climb.
In the absence of either passing judgement on the expedition or cranking up the suspense in an unseemly fashion, the best that the film can do is to play a waiting game. It can show some of the man-made problems that contributed to the ones posed by nature – the missing equipment that hindered the ascent, or the possible error Rob makes in deciding to press ahead to the top despite being behind schedule, rather than turning back. Even here, however, this potential misjudgement is disguised as optimism, so that no one will be made to seem culpable. Lingering between excitement and eulogy, Everest is like an inexperienced climber: eager enough to set out for the peak but caught halfway between success and failure.
Everest (12A) is directed by Baltasar Kormákur and released on 18 September
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War