Climbing Mt. Everest is a challenge of two halves; getting to the summit is only half of the mission. Once there you have to get back home. Likewise, this is a film of two halves.
The first part of Everest is the ascent, or build up. And, as with the real-life mission this film is based on, it all goes largely how you’d expect. We are introduced to characters who are established as having domestic lives of varying stability and happiness; someone has a wife and children who they do not spend enough time with, somebody else is in a very happy relationship with a woman expecting their first child.
Much like Mt. Everest on a good day, it’s all exceedingly clear. The characters have challenges to face in their personal lives but they are externalising those challenges by choosing to face climbing this mountain instead. So the mountain is a metaphor and there isn’t going to be competition between the climbers but, as one character even says, between ‘every climber and the mountain’. The stage therefore is set for some pretty standard fare.
But then the film gets interesting.
After setting itself up as a story following some rather unoriginal character development, Everest suddenly changes tack. In essence it becomes a monster movie, only the monster isn’t the mountain but a storm that comes out of nowhere. And you can’t accuse the film of being subtle on this point either; the dark menacing clouds are accompanied by deep, growling sound effects that would suit Godzilla as well as they do any tempestuous atmospheric conditions.
Once the real peril has been established the film’s ethos becomes clear. Really this is a paean to implacable stoicism; heroic acts aren’t about pulling victory from the jaws of defeat but about refusing to cower in the face of defeat.
Understatement is key here, and this film uses it adroitly, most obviously in its covering of deaths. Characters die. But life-threatening crises aren’t foreshadowed with shots of fraying rope, or slowly growing cracks in an ice wall. Much like on a real attempt to climb Everest (I assume) they come quickly, out of nowhere and can be over as swiftly as they begin. People slip, fall out of shot and are dead. There are no picturesque panning shots to show them falling to their doom through freezing clouds. Tellingly, perhaps, the one act that comes closest to being an explicitly heroic rescue is accompanied by the darkly humorous line, ‘Is that ok with you?’
And that is where Mt. Everest really becomes the metaphor, not as the challenge but as the way to face up to challenges. It stands, battered by storms, challenged by climbers, but still it stands. Just because it’s there. Cold, strong, immovable, in this film Mt. Everest is a symbol for how to endure.
This chilly aloofness provides the film with what may be its biggest weakness: a glaring lack of local colour. The Sherpa guides get only perfunctory dialogue, their roles in the plot are almost exclusively expository. Nepalese culture is used for some brief but un-expanded upon, vague religious ceremonies and adds some colour to the shots of base camp and lower, but these are always in stark contrast to the over-powering bleakness of the mountain.
Of course it is nearly impossible to make a film about Everest without the mountain becoming a character in its own right. Slightly bizarrely, the film character that the mountain most closely resembles is the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. At first they are both established as the film’s primary threat but as we progress, by sheer virtue of their awesomeness on screen, they begin to appeal to you and you want to see more of them. And then, when a less cinematically impressive threat is established (whether they be weather or velociraptors), suddenly a part of you is rooting for that first magnificent beast. And then, at the end of both their films, those characters remain. Still standing, not good, not bad, only there, ruling their respective worlds.