Everest Baltasar Kormákur

Everest Baltasar Kormákur
"Because it's there."

That's how British climber George Mallory answered the question of why he wanted to scale Mount Everest back in the 1920s. His lifeless body wouldn't be found on the mountain until 75 years later.

Everest is a harrowing account of a 1996 expedition gone wrong, as chronicled in Jon Krakauer's non-fiction book Into Thin Air, that immerses you so deeply in the gruelling climb you can almost feel the frigid temperatures and exhausting weight of every step along the way. It takes its time establishing a group of characters and their doomed trek about as well as can be expected before detailing the series of crucial decisions and setbacks that soon puts nearly everyone in peril.

Rob (Jason Clarke), who has a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) back in New Zealand, regularly leads ambitious climbers willing to pay for his services on the 29,000+ feet trip to the summit with his company Adventure Consultants. His group this time around is a rather large one, and the film allows the personalities to emerge without an overabundance of clunky exposition.

Beck (Josh Brolin) is a cocksure Texan doctor with deep pockets and a worried wife (Robin Wright Penn) back home. Doug (John Hawkes) is a modest mailman who failed to make the summit on a previous expedition, and Rob's been nice enough to cut him a discount this time. Yasuko (Naoko Mori) is hoping to make Everest the last in the line of impressive mountains she's already conquered. Then there's Krakauer (Michael Kelly), the journalist who could garner some valuable publicity for the company, Emily Watson exuding compassion as Rob's co-worker assisting him from base camp and Jake Gyllenhaal as an affable and overconfident fellow expedition leader.

Some may find the first half of the film a tad slow and monotonous as the group makes incremental progress, but it's important in establishing the rhythms and intricacies involved in such an undertaking and the toll that acclimatization can take on the body. There are even matters of the free market to consider at these altitudes — a tense scene in which Beck struggles on a ladder over a deadly crevasse occurs only after the group is forced to wait as a logjam of groups representing different companies try to cross at the same time.

But as the group nears the summit, we can see the deadly dominoes starting to topple. Ropes haven't been set up at a critical juncture, and the time it takes to implement these costs the team valuable oxygen, which is already in short supply. Pride gets the best of people who have come too far to turn back now, even as time has never been more of the essence. When a massive storm then strikes at the most inopportune moment imaginable, it becomes a heart-wrenching struggle to survive at all costs against the increasingly harsh elements.

The script by William Nicholson (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Simon Beaufoy (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) may be hampered by the unavoidable difficulty of distinguishing characters from each other amidst all the inclement weather, but a grand spectacle like this is more of a director's movie anyway (and one best experienced in IMAX 3-D). In that respect, Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns) successfully makes the gargantuan mountain scarier than just about any movie monster you can imagine — an inhumane mass of swirling wind and snow that will envelop you in its icy clutches and swallow you up just as it did with George Mallory all those years ago. It's there, all right, and it doesn't take kindly to visitors.