This is the kind of movie that IMAX was invented for: big, visceral and intense. A heart-stopping adventure that has you catching your breath and gasping in shock as you go places most of us will never get to so as to engage in the sort of life-threatening thrills that, paradoxically, remind us that we are alive. It's an argument that safety-minded homebodies like me scoff at when risk-takers make it, but Everest makes you understand it deep in your gut.
And this is true even though Everest is the story of what had been the deadliest climbing season on the mountain until the 2014 and 2015 avalanches. The events of 1996, which led to the deaths of eight people, are generally well known to the public, thanks to adventure writer Jon Krakauer's best-selling first-person account Into Thin Air. He was on Everest in '96 on assignment for Outside magazine. And there was also an IMAX team on that mountain that year, shooting what would become the 1998 IMAX documentary Everest. (Krakauer appears here, played by House of Cards actor Michael Kelly. The IMAX team is mentioned but do not appear.)
By 1996, Everest had become commercialized. Outfits like New Zealand's Adventure Consultants — headed up by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) — and Seattle-based Mountain Madness — led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) — were taking paying customers up to the top of the world, and there were just too many damned people trying to get to summit during the narrow windows of opportunity. This year, 1996, is when "traffic jams" at the very highest point on the planet began.
It's probably a sad fact that this movie could make things even busier on Everest — this is a spectacular experience that may well make some viewers hungry for the real thing. We meet Hall and some of his clients, including Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), on their long trip through Kathmandu and up to base camp, which, at 17,000 feet, is an achievement in itself.
Director Baltasar Kormákur finds the most gorgeous vistas along the way. The trekkers passing over a narrow rope bridge above a deep mountain crevice is dizzying and breathtaking, and they haven't even gotten to the amazing bit yet. (The film was shot partly in Nepal, including at the real Everest base camp.)
See Everest in IMAX 3D if you can for the most enrapturing you-are-there feeling. The pain and the effort that goes into getting to the top of the mountain — so high up that every step is killing you — is vivid and acute. But, to actually reach the summit, as we do with several characters, is a thing of immense awe and pleasure. The movie features a few moments in which the climbers discuss why they are doing something so dangerous, so expensive, and, some might say, so pointless. And their explanations are surprisingly compelling: Weathers finds relief from crushing depression and Hansen is motivated by the schoolchildren he inspires to imagine big things for themselves.
But it's the clear exhilaration that the film sings out at the top of the mountain that says everything that needs to be said. "Because it's there" suddenly makes a lot of sense to those of us down here. Those "down here" in the film include Keira Knightley and Robin Wright as, respectively, the stay-at-home yet supportive wives of Hall and Weathers, and Emily Watson as the manager of Adventure Consultants' base camp. But they already get it.
Everest is not an intellectual examination of what drives people to do apparently crazy things, but there are unspoken questions running through the undercurrent. Is it worth the risk? How do we most fairly police access to wild places? The unspoken answer of Everest is that this is something we do need to figure out because the only motivation we need to look to is this: Climbing a big ol' mountain that might kill you along the way is ultimately a very human thing to do. We will push ourselves to the very edges of human endurance because we can. If you never appreciated that before, Everest is here to show you the truth of it.
Dir. Baltasar Kormákur; writ. William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy; feat. Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright
Opens September 18, 4.5 stars