Everest is a movie of expanses. The most obvious ones are the expanses of the Himalayas, their peaks competing arrogantly with the sky for superiority, their snowfields competing perilously with gravity to see who’s stronger, their rocky faces competing stubbornly with the winds to see who will break first. If you see Everest in IMAX 3D as I did and as I suggest you try to do if it is playing in a true IMAX theater near you, these expanses will overwhelm you and haunt you long after the movie ends.
The other expanses central to the story are the expanses you see when you look into another person’s eyes. As often as the camera zooms out to take in the magnitude of the Himalayas, it also zooms in to peer into the eyes of the mountaineers, their irises like universes unto themselves, universes tested by the mountain. William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s smart script sketches Everest’s characters quickly to catch your interest and shades them slowly so that as they all make their way up the mountain and the dangers increase, every victory, every close escape, and every loss matters immensely. When the screen is filled with the characters’ eyes, we see every dream being tried on the climb and everything at stake for each of them. Everest is epic and intimate at once.
You are likely familiar with the details of the 1996 disaster chronicled in the film. This story has been told many times before, most famously in Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. If you don’t know the details of the story, don’t look them up prior to seeing Everest. Not knowing who will live, who will die, and how they will either survive or perish adds an extra layer of tension to the story. If you do know the details, Everest is still rife with tension. There are many theories and explanations about exactly what went wrong on that climb. The power of Everest is in seeing the egos and emotions behind the fateful decisions. The partially fictionalized Everest fills out the story in a way mere facts cannot and gets closer to the truth about “why we climb,” whether we’re climbing actual mountains or metaphorical ones.
To Everest’s great credit, the movie doesn’t give a simple answer to “why we climb.” It’s wise enough to know that everyone strives to summit the mountain for different reasons. Beyond the physical strain of climbing, it’s each person’s personal reasons for climbing that ultimately test the expedition. Whether or not they can make it to the top of Everest depends on whether or not they can find common ground. The disaster tests each person’s individual resolve and reveals the problems in their individual motivations.
“My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work sot that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing,” James wrote at the beginning of his book. As Everest shows, sometimes tests lead to death. And James can tell his readers to be joyful amidst test of faith, because their faith is rooted in Christ, and even if they are killed for their faith, they can look forward to resurrection. Their joy is fueled by hope.
It would be false to liken the trials of Everest’s mountaineers to the trials faced by James’ readers. Everest’s mountaineers experience joy on the mountain but not in death. The movie’s version of hope is the pregnant belly of Rob Hall’s wife. The only resurrection possible without Christ is in our offspring. Incidentally, that’s why early Christians were apt to vow celibacy – they placed their hope for a future in Christ instead of in having children. Everest’s mountaineers have faith in… what exactly? They have faith in themselves, their team, and their ability to climb. The disaster they face reveals the faults of some of their faiths just as it reveals the strength of some of their wills. Everest is as much about limitations as it is about aspirations.
Everest isn’t an inspirational film. How could it be, given the historical facts? Everest is complicated. It’s a thinking-man’s “men and women on a mission” movie with enough high alpine action to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year, and it cries out for a better hope. See it in IMAX 3D if you dare.