Everest (3D) (12A)

three stars

Dir: Baltasar Kormakur

With: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin

Runtime: 121 minutes

THOUGH it is set in 1996, Baltasar Kormakur’s stunningly shot Everest is an old school disaster movie of the kind that flourished in the 1970s. But unlike The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, the events shown here were only too real.

This puts an added pressure on Kormakur and his all-star cast, led by Josh Brolin and Jason Clarke, to answer the question which taps every mountaineer on the shoulder at some point - why do they do it? Why risk life, limb, and a large amount of money, to make an attempt on the world’s highest mountain? That the film tries but ultimately fails to answer that is one of its shortcomings. Having said that, while Kormakur’s picture is not up there with 2003’s Touching the Void for heart in the mouth tension, if you want awesome views, vertigo-inducing shots, and an inkling of what it is like trying to survive in near impossible conditions, Everest delivers.

The Icelandic director of 2 Guns, The Deep, and Contraband opens his picture with a quick intro to this particular moment in Everest’s history. This was the time when commercial climbing operators began to take parties up in ever greater numbers. While one often hears about the commercialisation of the climb, scenes of mountaineers queueing to cross deadly crevasses as if they were waiting at a bus stop truly brings the notion home.

At the centre of the tale is New Zealand adventure firm owner Rob Hall (Clarke). Waiting for him at home is a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley). Another family man is Beck Weathers (Brolin), who is one of several Americans, including a writer, Jon Krakauer, and a postman, played by John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone). The sole female in Hall’s group is Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese mountaineer aiming for her seventh great summit.

With this posse are sherpas and other guides. Kormakur then brings on another group, this one helmed by Jake Gyllenhaal, and introduces us to yet another, the ground crew led by Helen Wilton (Emily Watson with an accent that could split a boomerang). Each climber, we learn, has paid $65,000 to tackle the mountain.

Unwisely, the screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) tries to cover as many personal stories as possible. This accounts for the excessive running time and the delay in getting going with the tale. It seems as though everyone is given a back story, if not before the climb then during it. More than a few, moreover, are lined up to deliver portentous dialogue (“The last word always belongs to the mountain”, etc) as they go along. While it is part of the make up of a disaster movie for doom to be foretold, the screenplay here lays it on several feet thick.

In this crowded field of characters, the women, in the main, have little to do but hang anxiously on the ends of phones and radio handsets. Of the men, Clarke impresses as the resourceful Hall, with Brolin a close second as a man who does not quite know himself why he is there; he only knows that he has to do this.

As a result of all this preparation, exhaustion may well have set in on the part of the viewer by the time the real action begins. Which is a pity, because Kormakur knows what he is doing when it comes to chilling and thrilling the viewer in 3D. On behalf of the mountain, he unleashes several kinds of weather hell and twists of fate on his characters, zooming out to show them as mere specks on a mountain, and then snapping back to close quarters to see the suffering as they attempt to survive in a place nature has simply not meant them to inhabit.

Seeing how appalling the conditions are makes it even more unfathomable why so many want to take on Everest. The screenplay settles on having the characters chime Mallory’s line - “Because it’s there” - as a jokey riposte to Krakauer’s questions. Perhaps there really is no more to say.