Why Does Everest Feel So Small?

everest

Everest
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Opens September 18

The 1998 movie Everest was not the first movie filmed entirely in IMAX exclusively for IMAX theaters, but it did become a standard-bearing evergreen of sorts. Opening at a time when the number of available IMAX venues at any given time hovered around 60 and were often housed in museums, the documentary hung on in those theaters and played for over two years, and was often revived by IMAX theaters that needed to fill the gap between the increasingly frequent Hollywood productions. All told, Everest has grossed $87 million from its IMAX-exclusive theatrical life, good for second place behind Space Station 3D, which came out in 2002 and amassed its gross over a decade-plus run; even early IMAX versions of movies like Beauty and the Beast and Attack of the Clones couldn’t catch it.

Now, almost twenty years later, another movie called Everest is opening exclusively in IMAX theaters for one week, ahead of a wider bow next weekend.

After a lean few weeks when IMAX screens have been playing The Transporter Refueled and a brief revival of Mad Max: Fury Road (which missed the format in its initial run in May), Everest will likely command a particularly large percentage of the now-400ish IMAX theaters nationwide.

Of course, that total is goosed by the number of those screens that are actually retrofitted multiplex auditoriums, upgraded to certain sound and projection standards (as well as IMAX’s particular, often brighter 3D system), but nowhere near the size of the old, more vertically shaped screens like the one at the AMC Lincoln Square (I saw the movie at the AMC 34th Street theater, whose IMAX screen is one of the least IMAX-y in the city; it’s basically just a big auditorium with a nice projection system). In fact, Everest is coming out during a brief window where even the biggest and best IMAX theaters in the country aren’t really being used to the best of their abilities. Because so few IMAX movies are offered in the kind of 70mm-style ultra-high-res that can fill either the width or sometimes even the length (if shot with IMAX cameras) of the screen, the classic theaters need to upgrade to the company’s new laser projection in order to really use the full brilliance of their facilities.

All of this is to say that Everest, while vivid and clear in IMAX 3D, does not exactly offer the vivid simulation of high-altitude terror it probably could in the grander version of this format. It’s hard not to think of this because the movie specifically mentions the IMAX team that made the earlier documentary version of Everest; they were filming an expedition when disaster struck a different group of climbers, and were on hand to both help and capture the situation, which was also the basis for Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

So from a nonfiction standpoint, this is well-covered territory, re-covered by director Baltasar Kormákur and the kind of starry cast that might have, in a different era, populated a starry disaster movie. Jason Clarke leads as Rob Hall, the New Zealander whose company Adventure Consultants has led something of an Everest tourism gold rush; as the movie explains at the outset, the Everest climb stats were rife with failure and fatality before these companies sparked both an interest in civilian mountaineering and, by volume, a lowering of the death rate on the mountain. He’s supported by Josh Brolin and John Hawkes (as adventuring customers), Jake Gyllenhaal and Sam Worthington (as other climbers/guides), plus Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, and Emily Watson (as women on the phone).

One of the movie’s unexpected pleasures is the fascinating look at provides at the business of Everest—how it actually works, leading people up there, through the kind of anti-life conditions the movie lays out with great efficiency. The character stuff isn’t especially inspired, but Brolin and Hawkes get to play with interesting backstories; they’re most directly engaged in the why of this particular life-threatening expedition, posed onscreen by Krakauer (Michael Kelly). These men and women are missing anniversaries, time with their families, possible childbirths, all to gasp for air, and if the movie doesn’t have great answers up its sleeves, it at least offers a smidge of psychology in between the amazing sights.

And the sights are amazing, with often-seamless combinations of location shooting and visual effects. Kormákur’s biggest American films have been the kind of Mark Wahlberg vehicles Tony Scott might have made in 1998 or so, schedule and Denzel Washington permitting (the better one, 2 Guns, even has Denzel himself), but here he proceeds with an appealing squareness that brings to mind other 90s-style movies: harrowing survival stories like Alive or retro-disaster movies like Twister, though less cheesy than the latter. Everest works well as an adventure story, oddly, until the disaster really sets in; some of that material is frightening, of course, and well-rendered, but after a while all the frozen limbs and desperate calls for help start to feel, well, kind of numbing (the actors also become, by necessity, difficult to differentiate). It’s not entirely the movie’s fault; it’s bound, at least in its broad strokes, by the facts of this particular case. But Kormákur genuflects to the tragedy without really shaping it; when it’s time for the movie to face reality, it doesn’t bring along much additional insight. Suddenly the faux-IMAX screens don’t seem too small, after all.

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