Adventure epic has stunning digital scenery of Everest, but downplays role of Nepali climbers in the 1996 tragedy
“Everest is another beast, another beast altogether.” That is New Zealander climber Rob Hall’s character in Everest telling his clients in Kathmandu before heading off to the mountain in 1996.
Director Baltasar Kormakur’s latest Himalayan adventure epic that premiered Wednesday night in Kathmandu is based on Jon Krakauer’s first person account of the deadly 1996 climbing season, Into Thin Air. That tragedy left eight mountaineers dead, including Hall, below the summit of the world’s highest mountain.
Jason Clarke’s brilliant portrayal of Rob Hall and the movie’s stunning cinematography and digital studio work makes the story come to life and one gets a realistic feel of the raw violence of the mountain’s Death Zone.
We begin with Hall’s departure from Christchurch for Kathmandu. The scenes of the overflowing chaos of Kathmandu airport and the crowded streets of Thamel are in stark contrast to the surreal beauty of the trek to Base Camp through gorges and across prayer flag -festooned suspension bridges.
At Base Camp we meet Helen Wilton the maternal figure who is a conduit for relaying the tragedies that are soon to unfold on top of the mountain. Wilton is portrayed by Emily Watson who also gives a truly powerful performance.
The other climbers in Hall’s group include Jon Krakauer (played by Michael Kelly), the Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) who believes his machismo is enough to get him to the top and a seasoned Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) who has climbed six summits, hoping to make Everest her seventh.
Also joining the group is the sweet-natured, humble mailman Doug Hansen (played beautifully by John Hawkes) who, having worked three jobs to finance his expedition, is returning for a third time in the hope this time he will finally make it to the top.
Jake Gyllenhaal appears as Scott Fischer, unruly and reckless, who seems to be drunk way too often for a climber responsible for a team of clients.
Gyllenhaal is unimpressive in his peripheral role. In fact, all the actors seem subdued compared to Clarke’s leading performance as the charming, level-headed, disciplined guide who risks his life to help the ailing Doug Hansen fulfill his dream.
Sadly, Kormakur’s film entirely overlooks the crucial roles of Nepali mountaineers. Ang Dorje who was Hall’s sirdar during the expedition and has a formidable role in Krakauer’s book has as much screen time as Sandy Pittman, the socialite climber who is only famous in Krakauer’s book for having insisted on bringing her espresso with her to Base Camp. Vijay Lama, who portrays Col Madan KC’s daring helicopter rescue from Camp II, also had a larger role which seems to have been discarded in the final cut.
As we follow the climbers on the trek up to Tengboche, it is the overpowering majesty of the Himalaya that stuns viewers. And if that was the impression on the screen at Jai Nepal Cinema, imagine what it will be like on IMAX. That alone is worth millions in publicity to revive post-earthquake trekking tourism in Nepal.
The parts from Kathmandu to Khumbu were filmed last year in Nepal, Base Camp was shot on location in the Dolomites of northeastern Italy and the digital backdrops and helicopter simulators were filmed in a London studio.
The terrifying traverse over the deep crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall followed by the precariously narrow and steep climb up the Hillary Step are hair-raising.
By the time the climbers summit, we too are relieved and utterly exhausted from having battled the bitter cold and winds together. You can see a touch of David Breshears in the hyper-real digital panoramas of the summit.
In the wake of the deadly avalanches of 2014 and 2015 on Everest, some would criticise Kormakur’s film for recounting the wrong disaster from 20 years ago that lacks relevance. That is like asking why a film about the Abraham Lincoln assassination was made in 2012 when there have been three American presidents assassinated since 1885.
In fact, Kormakur’s film and Krakauer’s book are both about the commercialisation of Everest expeditions and how that became a factor in the deaths in 1996. The fistfight on Camp III in 2013 was related to commercial rope-fixing for expeditions, and the Nepali guides who died in the avalanche in 2014 were hired by commercial expeditions and disproportionately exposed to the objective dangers on the Icefall.
And as Hall tells his clients before the climb: “The last word always belongs to the mountain.”
Everest opens in theatres worldwide September 25th.
Profiting from tragedy, Damien Francois
Back to Everest in 2015, Kunda Dixit
Heroes on Everest, Kunda Dixit
The Everest industry, Kunda Dixit