Short of heading to the Himalayas and climbing the world's highest mountain yourself, seeing Everest in 3D IMAX is the next best thing, a dizzying visual adventure that will knock the wind out of you. As personal drama, not so much. Working from a script by survival experts William Nicholson (Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours), Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns) must hew to the stark reality of the May 1996 expedition in which eight climbers died by mountain and blizzard. The Everest tragedies that killed 35 people this year and last only underscore the relentless risk.
It's up to an expert cast, many in beards and similar parkas, to provide the emotional lifelines for audiences. Jake Gyllenhaal excels as the American Scott Fischer, as does Jason Clarke as the Aussie Rob Hall, both leading their own rival groups up the crowded mountain. They are joined by Russian guide Anatoli Bourkreev (Ingvar Sigurdsson) and a host of amateur warriors, including Texan Beck Weathers (a very fine Josh Brolin), Seattle mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Japan's Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), the only woman on the trip — Everest will be the last of the Seven Summits she is conquering.
In cutaways, we see the pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) Hall left back home, and we get a glimpse of Weathers' domestic issues with his wife (Robin Wright). Cheers to Emily Watson for playing base-camp coordinator Helen Wilton with a compassion that never slips into sentiment. Sadly, there are too many characters to fit coherently into a two-hour movie. I should mention Michael Kelly, who plays Jon Krakauer, a climber whose landmark book about the trip, Into Thin Air, fills in blanks the film cannot.
Still, there's only one star in this movie: Everest. Kormákur couldn't shoot higher than base camp, around 14,000 feet, without sickening the actors. But a crew traveled to the top to get footage, while much of the climbing was shot in the Dolomites. No matter. You watch Everest and you believe.