Mount McKinley just got its real name back. Denali. Meaning “The Great One.”
Mount Everest’s real (Tibetan) name is Chomolungma, meaning “Goddess Mother of the World.” That’s a sight more poetic than the British surveyor it was secondarily named after. Too bad Obama can’t go over there and shake things up.
Mount Everest is a microcosm of the troubles of the world—respect for the divine mountain goddess went missing, and the highest mountain on the planet is now littered with trash, dead climbers, empty oxygen tanks, and human feces.
The last straw was the commercialization of Everest with guided, bucket-list tours to the top. At least in the past you had to be a hard-man of great grit to get up there. Now you pay your $65,000.00, and up you go.
Who’s to blame? No one, really. Fly-fishing guides, white-water rafting guides, Everest guides; it was only a matter of time. Now we’ve wrecked Chomolungma’s fragile ecosystem—it’s not that far a step from needing to stand atop Everest, to being the notorious Michigan dentist who poached that magnificent African lion. A microcosm of the world’s current problems.
And now for the actual movie.
Based on a True Story
There are three kinds of stories: Man versus Man, Man versus Himself, and Man versus Nature. Take a wild guess which one this is. Actually “Everest” is a mix of all three.
“Everest” tells the tale of two teams made up of amateur climbers, professional guides, and sherpas, who got caught in a violent storm on the day of their summit bid, in May, 1996. Eight people died.
Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), owner of New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants took leave of Jan, his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), to team up with a mailman from Seattle, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), and wealthy, tough guy Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), among others.
The now-famous author Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who was a relatively unknown journalist at the time, was also along for the ride. He was to write an article about Hall. His 1997 best-selling book about the climb, “Into Thin” Air,” wasn’t the only source “Everest” screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy used to craft their script.
Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain
Looking back, the idea of taking middle-aged tourists, amateurs to death-zone-level mountaineering (the cruising altitude of a 747 airliner we’re told, where the human body starts literally dying), up the world’s most spectacularly gigantic mountain, when some clients were already spitting up blood and exhibiting other signs of major stress prior to the summit portion of the ascent, was more than a little foolhardy.
Also, when the Adventure Consultants crew finally pull into Everest base camp, there are a staggering, United Nations-like, 20 different teams milling about, gumming up the works. Most of whom want to summit precisely on May 10. It’s highly cliché to say “recipe for disaster” but sometimes the cliché says it best.
One friendly rival outfit called Mountain Madness is headed up by Scott Fischer, a classic 1970s hippie-climber throwback, played to perfection by a bushy-bearded, long-haired Jake Gyllenhaal, with the chill attitude of such extreme sports types that belies a fiery inner wildman.
Clearly, you don’t just mosey up Everest. You have to get in shape; a series of shorter ascents to adjust the body to thin air, before attempting the summit. This is where the warning signal of hacking up blood gets started. It must be said that these vacationing hacks are some tough customers. You have to give them credit.
Back in the big tent, Krakauer starts in with the perennial (cliché) question the public always wants to know: “Why do you climb?” Everyone coyly and conveniently sidesteps the personal inventory invasion by hollering the line made famous by Mallory, of Everst: “Because it’s there!”
Director Baltasar Kormakur doesn’t get that question answered in this movie. If you want to find out why climber’s climb, read my review of “Meru,” a groundbreaking documentary about the Shark’s Fin, a vastly more dangerous Himalayan climb than Everest, featuring exclusively tier-one, world-class hard-men Alpinists, where Krakauer himself narrates, and explains why climbers climb, in great detail.
Time to Go for It
The rollercoaster-level, stomach-turning 3-D will put you right over the black, bottomless crevasses on a shaky metal ladder, and make you wish, for a few seconds, like some of those climbers that you hadn’t come on this trip.
Storms! Subzero! Extreme fatigue! Blurred vision! More blood-puking! The cache of oxygen tanks has gone missing! A bunch of fixed ropes too! And bad decision making into the bargain.
The main problem with the film is that it’s hard to tell who’s who, underneath all that Marmot, Gore-Tex, North Face, and Black Diamond equipment and mountain wear; crampons, ice-axes, jumars, and whatnot. It’s hard to act through all that material, and over all that clanking hardware.
The women—Watson, Knightley, and Wright, function as the film’s emotional barometers, since we can see their actual faces, in various quiet settings, perpetually on satellite phones. Watson in particular handles most of the tough reaction shots to bad news coming down from the mountain top—like the pro she is. She makes you feel something. The guys up on the mountain, not so much.
Knightley should win an Oscar for least-vanity-impaired scene by a beautiful actress, for come-what-may, gushing-facial-body-fluids scene.
In the end though, the real star is definitely Chomolungma herself—all 29,029 feet of her. We’re told early on: “The last word belongs to the mountain.” And so it should. Puny, puking, flailing humans. How dare they attempt to mount the goddess and fling their feces about like the hairless apes they sometimes appear to be?
Still. Mountain climbing is a metaphor for the razor’s edge path of spiritual enlightenment, and all those who are drawn to it must be respected for heeding the faint call of their Buddha-nature seeking to emerge, though they climb mostly in ignorance of that fact. R.I.P. and blessings to all those who still lie, frozen, on the great somber face of Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World.
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jason Clarke, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Vanessa Kirby, Ang Phula Sherpa
Running time: 2 hours 1 minute
Release date: Sept. 18
3 stars out of 5