Visually and viscerally this is a stunning film. You can feel the cold and have a real sense of the physical challenges climbers face. It is matter-of-fact in its judgments, much like nature, but not wholly without sympathy for the results. In fact, in some cases the story brings a strange and sad beauty to the tragedies that unfold.
Director Baltasar Kormákur’s (No Such Thing) love and awe of ice and harsh environments comes out on screen. He enjoys playing the human and the non-human against one another. In some ways, he ended up in what amounts to a frozen, vertical version of Mad Max: Fury Road. Which isn’t to cheapen the result or the story, but that was how it struck me in many ways… you attempt to run up the mountain and back down before you die. The fact that this is a story based on true events, and released shortly after the quake in Nepal, only adds gravitas to it all.
The cast, led by Jason Clarke (Child 44), helps to make the events immediate and accessible, if not entirely satisfying or complete as a story. Along with Clarke, on the mountain, Josh Brolin (Hail, Caesar!), Jake Gyllenhaal (Southpaw), Emily Watson (The Dresser), Naoko Mori (Humans), Michael Kelly (House of Cards), John Hawkes (Good Kill), Sam Worthington (Cake), and others fill out the climbing and support teams. each have their moments, but this is strongly an ensemble piece, so few stand out.
Off the the mountain, Keira Knightley (Laggies) and Robin Wright (The Congress) represent the home-fronts and become our only common-experience connection to these people. Conquering the mountain is a highly personal and private moment, even as depicted, but it is these women, and Watson, who provide a way in.
Writers Nicholson (Les Miserables) and Beaufoy (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Hunger Games: Catching Fire) capture the sense of the climb and the issues, but most of their work is in structure rather than dialogue. The “how” of telling this true story was the difficult challenge they tackled, and did a reasonable job of it.
In truth, though, that is part of the issue with the film: it is nearly a documentary in its unemotional eye. An argument can be made that the lack of emotion was on purpose, reflecting the uncaring mountain, and I can buy that. But that reasoning doesn’t make it more satisfying as a movie, only more artistic.
If you’ve wondered what it might be like to try and accomplish what so few have over history, it is great movie to see. If you want a story that will transport you and provide emotional catharsis, this may or may not meet your need. It tugs a few emotional strings, but those are by-products more than the focus of this man vs. nature epic.