The key moment in Everest is when Jon Krakauer, the journalist who described enduring the fateful 1996 ascent to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain in the book Into Thin Air, asks the rest of his group of adventurers why they want to attempt such a dangerous feat. Not just the film’s key moment, it’s the only moment where anyone is asked to step back from the precipice of presumed exceptionalism and explain themselves. It’s a now-or-never moment since the group is just about to embark on the final leg of their journey. They pass the buck and offer up weak platitudes: they’re doing it to make their children proud; they’re doing it because they’ve tried before and failed; they’re doing it because it’s there. Krakauer (Michael Kelly) isn’t convinced and presses the question harder. No one offers up anything more rational. The next day, they continue their march. A significant number of them never make it back to base camp.
Speaking as someone whose relatives I’m convinced believe just because I rock-climb I’m clearly in training to pull an Alex Honnold stunt, there are no better answers. Or at least no more reassuring ones. Everest, and all other vertical endeavors, are Mother Nature’s Towers of Babel. And whether your urge is to redpoint a 40-foot 5.7 in the wild on a perfectly dry sunny day or flash a V10 150 feet above crashing waves, both still stem from a yearning to laugh in the face of gravity. No matter how you couch it, hubris is on parade, which is probably why Everest feels less like an cautionary adventure movie or the classy Hollywood equivalent of a Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” and much more like a disaster epic. Hubris is what fuels the best disaster movies, because without the Icarus mythology anchoring all that catastrophe, you’re only left with the most unpalatable underpinnings: vengeful gods, family-friendly snuff, visual-effects houses trying to one-up themselves by submitting slabs of digital concrete through rounds of “Does It Blend?”
Though the assembled members of Adventure Consultants guide Rob Hall’s (Jason Clarke) 1996 class aren’t guilty of, say, cutting corners to thread 137-story skyscrapers up with shoddy electrical wiring, their quest is subtly mined for its common solipsism. The thrill-sporting drive toward what climbers flatly term the “Death Zone”—or, the elevation at which there isn’t enough oxygen for humans to live—represents hubris of an Everyman variety. And, sure enough, part of the reason the 1996 ascents went so horribly awry beyond the sudden heave of icy squalls (“This mountain makes its own weather,” one guide barks) is because so many Everymen shared the same target. It may be the highest point on Earth, but it’s also conveniently a more attainable goal than reaching the apex of K2. So along the way, lines form at crevasse-bridging ladders, competing groups jockey at the calendar for the perfect window, Sherpas are overworked. Even before the mountain pulls the welcome mat out from under those poor souls’ Scarpa ice boots, their fate seems sealed on the cosmic stage.
Everest ultimately avoids passing any flat judgments, in part because it (perhaps smartly) doesn’t opt to shade any of its real-life figures beyond musing “there but for the Grace of God went they.” The closest director Baltasar Kormákur comes to a misstep is engaging in some outsiders’ Texas-bashing, pointedly dressing Josh Brolin’s Beck Weathers in a Dole-Kemp ’96 sweatshirt and depicting Robin Wright’s housewife organizing an affluent Stepford Wives’ calling circle to get international authorities involved in Weathers’s rescue. Otherwise, Everest is a tasteful, sweeping, carefully balanced reconciliation between the irrefutable authority of nature and mankind’s innate need to circumvent it.