In theaters Friday, Sept. 18
3 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Stuck atop the highest peak in the world, nobody can hear you scream.
That’s what makes this white-knuckler, about an ill-fated ascent to Mount Everest, such a harrowing and haunting force of nature.
And unlike the escapist thrills from your favorite summer flicks, this nail-biting, death-defying adventure is based on a real-life event.
It was mapped out perfectly. In the spring of 1996, experienced New Zealand-based guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) was set to lead excited hikers up to Mount Everest in the Himalayas. Included in the group: Hot-blooded Texas doctor Breck (Josh Brolin), blue-collar postal worker Doug (John Hawkes) and journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly). The dangers are obvious — as Hall reminds his clients early on, only airplanes are built to function at 29,000 above sea level. (“Your bodies will literally be dying.”) And yet, The Climb is a tourist-friendly travel business; the Disneyland of mountain climbing, if you will. Hall’s friendly rival, laid-back American Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) even plans to guide his own clients to Everest on the same day.
You’re wrong if you think only extreme and slightly insane daredevils would pay big bucks to subject themselves to the brutal elements high above Nepal. When Krakauer asks his cohorts why Everest, the answers range from “because it’s there!” to “If [my kids] can see that a regular guy can follow impossible dreams, maybe they’ll do the same.” These climbers aren’t superheroes; they’re just ordinary people determined to reach a goal. Who can’t relate to that? Perhaps that’s why the film doesn’t just focus on a single hiker — everyone on this journey gets to show courageousness and flawed hubris. (BTW, Krakauer, who wrote the best-selling book Into Thin Air, based on his Everest trek, and did not cooperate with the film, and is written as an emotionally detached and semi-smug intellect. Interesting.)
The problem is that these dream-chasers don’t seem to realize that Everest’s summit isn’t a finish line —it’s a halfway point. And they learn that lesson in the cruelest way possible.
The film’s unbearable tension gets ratcheted up each time the times flash on screen. Hall aimed to lead his group to the top at 2 p.m. on May 10 and have them all back in camp by 4 p.m. But at 2 p.m., Doug is not even close to the top. An ailing Fischer is lagging even farther behind, out of sight from his group. Meanwhile, Breck is slowly going blind and becoming immobile. Then the storm hits. And what was a problem-plagued descent turns into a fatal one. The climbers are left to fend for themselves in holy hell, below-zero conditions, with each gust of arctic wind bringing them one moment closer to death. (If only it were easier to decipher the victims underneath all their protective outerwear! Gyllenhaal is the one wearing the black down snowsuit. Right? Maybe?).
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (2012’s The Deep) helms the chaos in the mountains with dizzying award-worthy authenticity. Seeing it in IMAX 3D — don’t even consider the alternatives — only, well, heightens the breathtaking imagery. At times, you’re unsure whether to be awed by the majestic scenery or shudder at the horror surrounding it. For better or worse, you will gasp for air along with each person on that mountain. That is, when you’re not silently screaming to yourself, “Keep moving, Doug! Come on!!!!”
Indeed, the human drama that unfolds amid the riveting action is gut-wrenching. After your heart jumps out of your chest, it will break in two as a stranded Hall, still on Everest, speaks lovingly to his pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) on a satellite phone. Clarke and Knightley’s chemistry is remarkable, especially considering they only share one fleeting scene together. In all, eight people lose their lives.
The most chilling moment, however, occurs long after the screen goes to black. That’s when you realize the true enemy isn’t the mammoth mountain with its unforgiving crevices and icy footholds — it’s the irrational will to scale it in the first place.
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