As much as it can, Everest draws from real-life sources and from Jon Krakauer's non-fiction book Into Thin Air, a firsthand documentation of the event. The story is somewhat well-known, and even if you don't know the details of the incident, the tropes of a disaster story are culled from to create the framework of this one. It's 1996, and the conquering of Everest is no longer limited to a few survivalist men, but has turned into a somewhat lucrative side trade where people pay $65,000 to be shepherded up the steep slopes. There are obviously professionals who view the summit in the purist form -- if you can't get up there on your own skill, you don't deserve to be up there. There are others who live to help others fulfill their dream, such as Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke), head of adventure company Adventure Consultants.
As a non-documentary, Everest does its utmost to impress on a titanic scale. What wasn't shot in the mountains of Nepal was done with green screen and soundstage, but the integration is surprisingly seamless and the best parts of the movie are the moments of sheer terror and scale Kormakur is able to capture, whether it's the vertiginous usage of 3D over blackhole crevasses or the all-encompassing snow blindness that accompanies achieving the peaks. Kormakur is good at reminding the audience of the constant dangers of their adventure, whether it's with its nonchalant acceptance of people dying on the peaks (there's an early shot of a frozen body that current climbers skate their eyes over with a sort of nervous skitter before moving onwards), or the barrage of people whose bodies break down under the strain of the punishing conditions of increasing elevation.
The movie is certainly thin on several aspects besides air. There's an obvious attempt to humanize the clients and climbers of Everest, but there's not much there that goes beyond what the media has already told us. There's little depth and little opportunity to go beyond the paper-thin characterizations. The people are unfortunately as shallow as the reasons they give for climbing Everest: "Because it's there!" I don't mean to demean or disrespect the actual climbers, but in realistic circumstances, but there's a lack of skill in storytelling here as a director perhaps which makes it difficult to get into the root of all motivations or character. Jason Clarke is a far better choice than the original one of Christian Bale in his role; he effectively evokes the sort of everyman that everyone wants to see return. Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal also give relevant, yet brief sketches of their characters. For what we know happens in terms of events however, there's an uneven kilter in that we are led to believe in certain people in the turn of events for no pay-off. The movie is not about heroic ventures or even the indomitable will of its survivors. It is perhaps a realistic view of how people react in disaster situations, but that begs the question of why the movie bothers to build up personalities to have it become useless ultimately.
Of course the answer to this is that the movie is based on real events that are inflexible. Also, it is easy to say this is an exercise in the dominance and brutality of the peak. However, Kormakur seems unable to decide between making a realistic disaster movie, or one about relatable human beings. Sometimes, Everest plays out more effectively as an elevated documentary. As a film, it does too little with the visuals it has and not enough for human drama. Therefore, Everest is the sort of movie that looks great in theaters but loses most of its urgency on any screen that is smaller.
The danger with movies that are shot in 3D are to focus far too much on what kinds of tricks the visuals can do instead of understanding how to make visuals work for you/how little you actually need to do to draw an audience in. In the right hands, I believe that 3D can be used effectively or beautifully. Otherwise however, it's taking movies down a path that's neither edifying nor aesthetic. Unfortunately, Kormakur suffers from the same dilemma -- his depiction of Everest is not completely realistic enough to be edifying, nor completely narrative enough to be aesthetic.