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Front Page - Friday, September 25, 2015

What happens to your body when you watch a movie about Everest

The Critic's Corner

David Laprad

When “Everest” was over, I wanted to go outside, stand on level ground, and take a deep breath. I needed to feel something solid under my feet and fill my lungs with oxygen. I’m rarely so immersed in a film I have to remind myself it’s only a movie, but “Everest” broke through my normal defenses and affected me on a physical level.

“Everest” is based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, when eight people were caught in a blizzard and died during their attempts to summit the mountain. The film follows the survival attempts of two groups, one led by Rob Hall, and one led by Scott Fischer.

You might wonder what would compel these men and the people they were leading to attempt such a feat. “Human beings aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747,” Fischer warns his group during his pep talk. So why climb it? “Because it’s there,” they croon to a journalist joining them on the journey.

They’re joking. Each climber has his or her reasons, which we learn during the ascent. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin, in a terrific performance) is a doctor who feels suffocated at home with his family, and is only happy when he’s on a mountain. Doug Hansen is a mailman who wants to show his kids a regular guy can achieve an impossible dream. And Yasuko Namba has climbed six of the world’s seven summits, and wants to complete her collection.

Did any of them know what they were getting into? The hike up the mountain, before the blizzard hits, seemed hard enough. Some of the climbers grow sick, others begin to lose their eyesight, and the mountain, which occasionally tosses an avalanche or snowstorm their way, doesn’t make things easy. Many give up, but a few do make it to the top.

Then the blizzard hits during their descent. I won’t tell you who lives or dies, but odds are, someone you’ll wind up caring about will be among that number. This made “Everest” one of the most heartbreaking movies I’ve seen.

It’s also one of the most visually impressive. Viewed in 3D on an IMAX screen, the crisp, high fidelity images of Everest and the surrounding mountains are among some of the most remarkable I’ve seen in a film. The use of 3D is some of the best I’ve experienced, too. The depth of field created by the mountains and the clusters of clouds made me feel as though I was actually looking outside through the window of a 747. I could have stared at those snow-capped peaks for two hours and felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.

But then I would have missed the vertigo inducing shot of the camera looking down the side of the mountain as climbers inched along a narrow ledge, and the storm cloud approaching Everest like a dark beast hungry for victims, and the blizzard racing up the mountain to strike a climber in the face.

Although I knew I was sitting safely in a movie theater, “Everest” contains sequences so harrowing, I felt drawn into the events taking place on the screen. I could almost feel the bone-deep exhaustion of the climbers as they struggled against a stiff wind to climb a steep section of mountain, I felt an urge to gulp air as their lungs strained to inhale oxygen that wasn’t there, and I felt disoriented as some members of the party tried to gather their bearings in the blizzard.

As immersive cinema, “Everest” arguably has few equals. In fact, the only thing keeping the film from becoming a classic on the scale of “Titanic” is an undisciplined script. One critic called the film “a mess,” and while I didn’t think it’s that bad, it does have trouble focusing on its core story. From boring political maneuverings between Hall and Fischer to the jarring insertion of a third climbing group, the story wanders at times. Moreover, as the teams make their way up and then down the mountain, it becomes more and more difficult to understand who’s where, and what they’re trying to do.

While I would have preferred a tighter story, I was sold on the visual and audio components of the film, and on the way its director, Baltasar Kormákur, used these elements to make viewers feel a little of what being on that mountain must have been like.

If you want to see “Everest,” do so while it’s in theaters, and on the largest possible screen.

Three stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for intense peril and disturbing images.

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.