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The Mountain Between Us looks like a survival movie, is actually an extended Idris Elba fantasy

Turns out the real mountain between us ... was love.

Idris Elba and the mountain, which never really got between them
Idris Elba and the mountain, which never really got between them.
20th Century Fox
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Early marketing for The Mountain Between Us suggested it was a pretty straight-ahead survival movie: Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, playing a surgeon named Ben and a conflict photographer named Alex, are strangers who crash-land together in the wilderness and have to get off the mountain together, somehow.

That’s not inaccurate. There is a crash, and a mountain, and a wilderness, and a long arduous journey toward survival. The movie’s tagline is still “What if your survival depended on a stranger?”

But along the way, someone at 20th Century Fox noticed that while The Mountain Between Us is merely a serviceable survival movie (with admittedly stellar mountain views), it’s a terrific fantasy film, as long as your fantasy is being stranded alone for weeks in a pristine, untouched wilderness with Idris Elba, and then having him both save you and fall madly, irretrievably in love with you.

And so, smartly, the latest round of marketing for the movie has leaned without a shred of subtlety into the Elba angle. One video created for the movie’s Facebook page is simply cut-together shots of Elba from the film, with the text “When the guy you just met falls hard for you. ...” An iMessage app called “The Voice Between Us” lets you access “a selection of aspirational, inspirational quote messages” delivered by Elba, in his voice. And to really bring home the “just superimpose your face over Kate Winslet’s” angle, a tool called “In This With Idris” lets you … superimpose your face over Kate Winslet’s in a still from the movie, nestled beneath the strong shoulder of Idris Elba.

I am a human being with a pulse, and thus I am always here for some good Elba content. There’s not nearly enough of it. But as a professional film critic, I’m also obliged to tell you that The Mountain Between Us isn’t a very good film. But it’s not unwatchable, either, probably owing to the fact that its two leads are great actors in their own right, and they’re willing to take the whole thing quite seriously.

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in The Mountain Between Us
Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in The Mountain Between Us.
20th Century Fox

That shift in the film’s marketing away from survival and toward romance is an indicator of how it intends to keep audiences in their theater seats once they buy a ticket. The Mountain Between Us is a prime example of a movie that doesn’t trust its audience to have their own emotions, and instead instructs them on which emotions to have: Every plot device, every character trait, every story beat is specifically designed to wring the last drop of emotion from even the stoniest of moviegoing hearts.

There is a time and a place to indulge in that kind of guided emotionalism, and The Mountain Between Us is a solid choice for those moments. But if you’re looking for a movie that lives up to its cast’s talents, move along.

The Mountain Between Us is pure sentimental corniness — which might be just fine

The premise of The Mountain Between Us is admirably simple. All flights are canceled out of Boise because of an oncoming snowstorm, including the one bound for Denver, where Ben plans to catch a plane to Baltimore and Alex will hop on a plane home to New York City. In the morning, Ben has surgery; in the morning, Alex is getting married.

Alex is also a seasoned traveler who’s been all over the world as part of her job (she’s been in Boise with her camera, “shooting neo-Nazis for the Guardian,” a thread that regrettably never reemerges). So when she can’t get to Denver the conventional way, she charters a tiny plane. And having overheard Ben at the ticket counter, she offers to have him come with her to Denver, from whence they should still be able to get home.

They get in the plane with an unflappable pilot named Walter (Beau Bridges) and his golden retriever and take off, hoping to outrun the storm. Then the unthinkable happens, and the pair (and the dog, whom the marketing campaign also assures you survives) are left alone in the wilderness with one injured leg, some plane snacks, an unlimited supply of fresh water as long as they can melt the snow, and no cellphone service.

That’s about all you need to know. The movie hums along from set piece to set piece, with lots of shots of mountains and stumbling in the snow in between, and just enough character backstory revealed at key moments. At some point it becomes clear these two are developing feelings for one another (which seems extremely reasonable, given the circumstances), but in case you forgot, there are occasional brief flashbacks to stolen glances and meaningful looks earlier in the film.

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet in The Mountain Between Us
Idris Elba and Kate Winslet in The Mountain Between Us.
20th Century Fox

All of those elements make for a workmanlike heartstring-tugger from Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad based on a novel by Charles Martin. It doesn’t have anything in particular to say, no ideas to explore or characters to study. Alex and Ben aren’t very interesting, but strand two reasonably attractive people together for long enough and they’ll fall in love in a way that’s pleasantly watchable. Throw in a transcendently, fantastically corny ending the likes of which I doubt I shall ever see again on the big screen, and The Mountain Between Us charts a crystal-clear emotional trajectory from beginning to end.

Is that okay? It depends on how much you like being told how to feel. James Joyce wrote that sentimentality is “unearned emotion,” and The Mountain Between Us is nothing if not sentimental. With very little about Ben and Alex known to the audience other than the reason they want to get home, Elba and Winslet don’t have much to work with, and we only know we’re supposed to care about these people because we’re watching a movie about them; indeed, for about half the film, the most sympathetic character is the dog.

But sentimentality can be cathartic, and if you’re in the right mood — if you’re down for a good old-fashioned corny romance — then The Mountain Between Us is perfectly cathartic. It has beautiful vistas and a clearly defined objective. It has romance and danger and a few funny quips.

And, of course, it has Idris Elba.

The Mountain Between Us opens in US theaters on October 5.

Note: this review has been edited to correctly reflect its director’s ethnicity.