Sometimes cinema is simply not big enough to fully embrace its subject – and there is no bigger subject than Mount Everest. It’s all well and good for the Marvel clowns to tool around the globe with their super powers, but when it comes to reality, even when enhanced by CGI, the camera can still struggle. In 1996 a New Zealand commercial climbing outfit embarked on an ascent of Everest with a handful of clients. Tragedy awaited. The summit was reached, but on the delayed return to base camp the group was overtaken by a violent blizzard. Icelandic director (how appropriate) Baltasar Kormákur spends a lot of time introducing us to those who will make that fateful climb. Led by Rob (Jason Clarke), they include a gung-ho Texan (Josh Brolin), a Japanese woman (Naoko Mori) who has conquered the highest peaks of the six other continents, and a fellow who attempted it last year (John Hawkes). Rob joins forces with another guide (Jake Gyllenhaal looking like Rasputin) and the significant ones left behind are Rob’s pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) and his business partner Helen (the always-clammy Emily Watson doing a parody of the Kiwi accent).
Kormákur is oddly at pains to show most of those assembled as party animals who spend the nights before the final push to the top getting hammered in their flapping tents – Gyllenhaal seems to be rarely off the turps. Shot largely on location in Nepal, the logistical challenges would have been enormous, but Kormákur and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino admirably capture the fierce inhospitality of the environment. At times, however, when the going gets tough, I was uncertain of who was who as the figures trudged their way through ice and snow that virtually obliterated their identity. It’s an exhausting movie that never quite attains the heights of its endeavour or comes to grips with the question of why people attempt these things in the first place. The team photo at the end, taken in 1996, if now de rigueur, is touching nonetheless.