"Everest" is not an easy movie to watch. No entertainment that contains such tragedy should be.
The truly breathtaking spectacle and technical achievements can make you feel like you too are on a vertical slope at 29,000 feet. But this awe-inspiring movie is also one that's laced with dread, little triumph and even less perspective as you wait, with a knotted stomach, for the disasters to manifest.
"Everest" recounts the events of, and leading up to, May 10, 1996, when a series of controversial decisions and a heap of bad luck led to the deaths of 8 climbers -- then the deadliest day in Everest history.
It is not, however, based on the most famous account, journalist Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air." It's an amalgamation of stories, reports and never-before-heard tapes from the day, focused mostly though on Adventure Consultants lead Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and Texan climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin).
Krakauer is a character in "Everest," ("House of Cards'" Michael Kelly), but a peripheral, underdeveloped one. His presence as a journalist covering the expedition frames the growing tension between customer service and safety inherent in the commercialization of adventure. The script also uses him as a "why climb" observer. He can bluntly ask what the audience is thinking, and he does at one point. The scene goes nowhere, though. The other characters crack wise or choose silence, as though the desire to climb Everest is so unexplainable. "Because it's there," they say.
So when a handful of climbers do make it to the peak, it's harder to feel their euphoria. All we can see is looming death.
That's part of the problem of "Everest." All the elements are there, but the emotions never land -- even with the inclusion of previously private conversation between Rob Hall and his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) as his plight atop the mountain becomes direr.
The large ensemble cast is packed with recognizable faces -- Clarke, Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Knightley, Sam Worthington, and on and on. It can be distracting, but perhaps it is the only way to truly orient an audience with who's who. There's not a lot of time to get to know the individuals before their faces are obscured with ski masks and goggles and they're reduced to, and dependent on, our ability to recall the color of their snowsuits.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur ("2 Guns") wrangles the story, characters, and beastly natural setting as best as he can. The film trots along briskly and hits beats with sitcom precision as we go from sea level to base camp to the ultimate ascent. There is some levity too, thanks to Gyllenhaal's earthy expedition leader Scott Fischer, but mostly blunt foreboding.
The scenes on the mountain are truly outstanding, and the 3-D is atmospheric, not gimmicky. You can almost feel the ice thrashing against the characters' faces as the remarkable storm hits. A brief, thrilling scene with a helicopter is worth the price of admission alone.
The grandiosity of the mountain, though, is juxtaposed with Kormakur's odd choice to shoot many of the character scenes in extreme close-up. Unless you're in the ideal center in an IMAX theater, the effect can be claustrophobic, and it does not make the emoting more effective. Instead, it detracts from the performances.
Fictionalized accounts of real tragedy are not impenetrable. James Cameron made us feel for a ship full of characters we'd never met. "Everest" can't break that seal, and it's a handicap. Maybe there's too much reverence. Maybe the story and the truth are supposed to be enough and anything else would have seemed exploitative. With 19 years of perspective and the technical ability to visually tell the story that we've all heard so many times at this point, though, it should have been more.
"Everest" is a good movie, but it could have been a great one.
"Everest," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "intense peril and disturbing images." Running time: 121 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr