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Spectacular, heartbreaking 'Everest' brings historic tragedy to the big screen
Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads the expedition in "Everest." - photo by Josh Terry
Early in Everest, a group of seasoned mountaineers sit around trying to find an answer to the question that haunts their passion: Why?

The clich answer because its there! is insufficient. Ultimately, each climbers answer is personal, and as Everest unfolds, the validity of that answer underscores every moment of the tragedy that follows.

Everest is the big-screen rendering of the real-life tragedy that inspired Jon Krakauers best-selling novel "Into Thin Air." Its spectacular, inspiring and, most importantly, heartbreaking. Consider it a spoiler alert if you will, but you should probably know that this story doesnt end happily in typical Hollywood fashion.

What it does do is pull you so deeply into a trek up the worlds tallest mountain that you often forget that youre watching a movie. Everest is a sermon of intensity, a film built for IMAX and surround sound. Its almost worth seeing for the incredible Himalayan visuals alone.

Its protagonist is Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke), a longtime mountaineer who pioneered commercially guided ascents back in the 1990s. By the time we reach the events of Everest in 1996, Halls ambition has backfired, and the legendary Himalayan peak has become overrun with adventurers, all trying to cram their journeys into a narrow window of acceptable weather.

Halls party includes Krakauer (Michael Kelly), then writing for Outside magazine; longtime friend Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), who failed to summit on a previous ascent; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a Japanese climber looking to cross Everest off her bucket list. The ensemble cast also includes Josh Brolin, who plays the Texan Beck Weathers, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Scott Fischer, the leader of a rival company.

The film builds at a gradual pace, schooling viewers on the grueling process climbers must go through to acclimate to the high elevations before even attempting their ascent. Director Baltasar Kormkur uses this time to flesh out his leads, as well as some peripheral characters, including Keira Knightley, who plays Halls pregnant wife, Jan.

The feeling of anticipation carries the audience through the slower build. Then, once Halls team begins its ascent, things begin to go wrong right away. Bickering among competing groups causes time-wasting holdups, and equipment gaffes involving ropes and ladders lead to more problems. In spite of all this, Hall and co. make it to the top of the mountain, but thats where the clash between man and nature goes from inconvenience to tragedy.

Clarke is well suited to his role as a man torn between feelings of compassion and duty. You could argue that some poor decisions led to the events on the mountain, but here we see the struggle behind them. Brolin is also strong as Weathers, who realizes too late that hes in over his head.

Kormkur gives us just enough about his various characters to care about them, and immerses his audience so fully in the experience that its easy to sympathize even without a lot of character development.

The cinematography and staging are so impressive, so incredible, that you cant help but wonder how the filmmakers put it together. But in a way, worrying too much about how much is CGI or how much is on location would ruin the experience. Everest gives you every reason to believe it is real. And heartbreaking as it may be, it's a movie experience well worth having.

Everest is rated PG-13 for sustained sequences of peril, as well as some frostbite-related gore.