I'm tempted to assign Everest — the new mountain-climbing adventure/disaster film currently out in IMAX theaters and out everywhere September 25 — to a new subgenre of films I like to call the "You are there!" film. Like Gravity (the most successful version of this type of film), Everest would lose quite a bit on even the biggest TV screen. It calls out for the theater.
These movies are like that — often best seen on as large a screen as possible. They send their viewers to a place the vast majority of us will never be able to visit. And they alternate between dizzying, sweeping vistas and tight close-ups on the faces of the characters stuck in these vast, open spaces.
They are, in their own way, an attempt by movies to reassert their supremacy by going bigger and vaster and louder, which is how the movies always reassert their supremacy. But they're also, on some level, about how digital filmmaking is changing the industry in ways we're not always consciously aware of.
How digital cameras make movies like this possible
In 1996, the documentary filmmakers behind the IMAX documentary Everest were lauded for something seen as unprecedented: getting a 40-pound camera to the top of the world's highest mountain and filming most of their journey. Now, the feature version of Everest features several scenes actually filmed on location on the mountain, with actors and crew members and everything, and nobody bats an eye.
The biggest reason for this is the transition from film to digital. Film is great for many, many things, but it's not so great at handling weather extremes — to say nothing of how the equipment it requires is bulky and hard to manage. Digital, meanwhile, is sleeker, smaller, and easier to lug up the world's tallest peak.
Digital also allows for a lot of different filming options using much quicker setups. With film, if you wanted to shoot a bunch of different zoom levels of a particular scene, you'd have to do multiple camera setups. With digital, much of this can be handled within the computer in the editing room. That's good for indie filmmakers trying to keep costs down, but it's also great for people making a movie somewhere where weather conditions can turn in an instant — like, say, Mt. Everest.
The transition from film to digital has been messy, and in some ways, Hollywood has plunged forward with too great of haste. But digital has its advantages, too, and one of those is making the "you are there!" film possible. It's one thing to send a bunch of actors in front of a green screen and have them pretend to climb a mountain. It's another to actually have them do it. (Though for the scenes at the highest of altitudes, Everest faked things using good, old-fashioned soundstages and green screen work.)
Indeed, one of the things that's most jarring in Everest is when obvious computer effects are used, as when a big storm rolls in, and the clouds crackle with CGI lightning. The "you are there" film only works when you really do feel like you're there.
Why these films use so many close-ups
Oddly enough, this means that the "you are there" film also has to make frequent, vital use of close-ups. Think of just how much of Gravity hinged on watching Sandra Bullock's face in moments of extreme distress. Remember that massive, one-shot opening sequence? So much of that is just watching her watch things go to hell around her.
The same goes for Everest, which retells a story that's been told many times before but, curiously, never as a big-screen film. The 1996 Everest disaster, when eight people died on the mountain's face after a massive snowstorm descended, was immortalized in Jon Krakauer's instant nonfiction classic Into Thin Air, which was later adapted as a made-for-TV movie (and not a very good one), but never got the big-screen treatment.
Everest isn't directly adapted from Krakauer's book, and takes other sources into account, but the events depicted will be familiar to anyone who's read Into Thin Air. (Indeed, Krakauer is a character here, as played by House of Cards' Michael Kelly.) This, then, is an adventure story turned sour. It's about the great things human beings can accomplish when we set our minds to it — and just how quickly the indomitable forces of nature can remind us of our place.
This means that Everest needs to alternate between shots that remind us of humanity and shots that remind us of the mountain's vast sweep. Director Baltasar Kormákur (whose solid 2012 survival film The Deep provides a much more intimate version of Everest's tale of man against nature) is only too happy to oblige.
His camera happily takes in plunging dropoffs and the unimpeded vistas at Everest's summit. And just as easily, it takes in the hardy faces of those who climb the mountain as they slowly count up the many, many tiny failures that add up to the one big failure that leaves eight on the mountainside to die.
The biggest star is the mountain
Everest is, unquestionably, cheesy in parts. How could it not be? The elemental struggle between life and death seems inextricably tied to the goofiest parts of ourselves. Late in the film, there's a scene where a woman mobilizes the forces of all her best friends to save her husband from the mountain, and it's a bit silly, yes, but wouldn't you do the same?
A movie that asks viewers to put themselves in the shoes of someone in an impossible, once-in-a-lifetime situation necessarily requires great actors to empathize with. And if nobody here rises to the level of Bullock in Gravity, there's still a great crew of players.
Jason Clarke is a sturdy center as expedition leader Rob Hall, who seems to see foreshadowing of doom everywhere he turns, while Jake Gyllenhaal is a lot of fun as Scott Fischer, his more lackadaisical counterpart. Josh Brolin and John Hawkes turn in nicely hewn supporting performances as laymen climbers, and Keira Knightley makes the most of her role as Rob's wife, pregnant and stuck at home. (In general, you can predict who will be in the most dire of straits in this film based on how famous the person playing their spouse is. Somebody's got to give convincing tears on the other ends of those phone calls.)
But the real star, as always in a "You are there" film, is the setting. The vast majority of us are never going to climb Mt. Everest — and Everest makes a great case for never, ever doing so — but Everest provides a convincing facsimile for those of us without climbing gear at the ready.
It's unlikely to have the massive success of Gravity, as it doesn't have quite the uplifting ending of that film (though God knows it tries), but it's worth watching just to see the places human beings should probably never tread, even though they keep climbing toward them.
Everest is showing in theaters throughout the country. It's currently only available in IMAX, but will be available in other formats September 25.