‘Everest’: Visuals, acting elevate a high-altitude adventure

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The thing about scaling a mountain is even if you reach the peak, you have to go back down — and by that point you’re exhausted, disoriented, struggling for breath and in many cases fending off snow blindness and frostbite and swelling of the brain, among other lovely side effects.

Based on true events, filled with stunning visuals and featuring more than a half-dozen of our best actors delivering solid performances, Baltasar Kormakur’s “Everest” is a high-altitude roller coaster ride that will leave you drained — even though at times it’s difficult to distinguish one climber from the next in the swirl of the storm, and character development takes a back seat to the harrowing action.

Inspired by the true events of 1996 that led to Jon Krakauer’s best-selling non-fiction thriller “Into Thin Air,” “Everest” is a dramatization of events. We get a handful of heroes and no true villains, though some climbers come off as more noble and selfless than others. (One could understand how some of the families of the men who didn’t make it might not be thrilled with a few speculative scenes.)

Jason Clarke, one of those actors whose face you’ll recognize from roles in such films as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Terminator Genisys” even though he’s yet to become a household name, plays Rob Hall, a New Zealand mountaineer who helped pioneer the concept of turning Mount Everest into the ultimate adult fantasy camp. For a considerable fee, Hall’s Adventure Consultants (and other firms that quickly followed) would lead amateur albeit seasoned climbers up the world’s tallest, most dangerous and most famous peak.

Rob’s a solid guy with a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley), the unwavering loyalty of his team — and a tendency to be almost too sympathetic to the dreams of his clients.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer, on the other hand, is a free-spirited American guide who believes if you can’t make it up the mountain with minimal help, you shouldn’t be on the mountain in the first place. We know Scott’s a rebel because when we first see him at base camp, he’s shirtless, he’s got a badass ponytail and cool sunglasses, he’s catching some rays and drinking booze, and he smirks a lot.

Other featured players get similarly basic back stories, told in quick and straightforward fashion. Krakauer (Michael Kelly from “House of Cards”) is a famous journalist writing about the climb — but he’s determined to make it all the way to the top as well. Josh Brolin’s Beck is a “100 percent Texan,” as he puts it, who talks a macho game but has a secret about why he’s really out there. John Hawkes’ Doug is a mailman whose explanation for why he’s on this climb is the only moment when we get anything beyond, “Because it’s there.”

They’re explorers. Thrill-seekers. And in the cases of the main characters, they’re doing this for a living.

(In movies such as “Everest” and “Into the Wild” and “127 Hours,” I sometimes find it just a little more difficult to become emotionally invested in the characters, only because one can’t forget they chose to put themselves in these situations. It’s not the same as when a character has survived a plane crash, or is fighting a war, or is trying to rescue someone else. This is not to say I didn’t care about Rob or Doug or any of the other characters in “Everest.” As portrayed by these fine actors, these are good people, in many cases good people with spouses and children waiting at home for them, and there’s no denying the powerful tug of a couple of scenes involving wives played by Robin Wright and Keira Knightley, who are tethered to the telephone and feeling helpless as they hear increasingly dire reports about their husbands.)

By 1996, the business of climbing Mount Everest was booming — to the point where there were actual human traffic jams of various teams jockeying for position to reach the peak during a two-week window in May when conditions weren’t quite as brutal as normal. (It’s still more like trying to survive on another planet than an inhabitable section of Earth.)

“Everest” does a fine job of laying out that situation — and then the climb begins, and storms hit, and it’s all about the special effects and the practical stunts, and following along with various climbers who stop short and turn back, reach the summit victoriously and/or draw their final breaths on Everest, like so many before them.

[s3r star=3/4]

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Baltasar Kormákur and written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense peril and disturbing images). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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