Today’s documentary is the most successful film at the US box office that never made it into the weekly top 10. If it wasn’t excluded from the list on a technicality, it would be highest grossing documentary of all time. Some folks went up a big mountain, and took a really big camera. This is the result.
Watch out for altitude sickness.
May, 1996. Noted American mountaineer Ed Viesturs leads a team up the world’s tallest mountain, accompanied by legendary climber and cameraman David Breashears and his IMAX camera. The result is the closest most people will ever get to being on top of the world.
First, some history. The IMAX format has been around for over 40 years, ever since Donald Brittain’s short film Tiger Child debuted at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. It took another 25 years before the system was used for anything other than short-form documentaries or demonstration pieces, and that was the 40-minute-long Wings of Courage, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1995. Despite the proliferation of feature films being released to IMAX screens since around 2003, very few of these have actually had any footage shot using the large-format cameras and film platters. Most are standard 35mm or digital films that have been converted to 70mm; a process basically the same as blowing up a 16mm reel to a 35mm projection print.
This is why such a big deal has been made about Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister shooting about an hour of The Dark Knight Rises using IMAX cameras; they are so bulky, expensive and loud that the impracticalities still outweigh the advantages. I mention all this not to pad out the word count*, or to justify the amount of time I spend on wikipedia**, but to make one simple point: if, even after 42 years, nobody has been able to shoot a full-length feature film with one of these cameras in a climate-controlled studio, how hard must it have been to lug the thing up a fucking mountain?
My 32inch LCD is no match for an IMAX screen, but this is still a visually spectacular film. The clarity of the picture is stunning, particularly when compared against the short messages some of the climbers filmed on camcorders that have been intercut here and there. As beautiful as the mountain is made to look by David Breashears – acting as both director and cinematographer – the most dynamic footage is in the early sections of the film where we meet the climbers in their “natural habitats”, including Spaniard Araceli Segarra hanging off a cliff-face over crystal clear water, or a helicopter shot soaring through Monument Valley while Ed Viesturs and his wife Paula tear across the famous landscape on mountain bikes.
As you might expect under the circumstances, there are no talking heads in Everest. The climbers all tell their stories of the expedition in voice-over monologues, with Liam Neeson’s mellifluous tones providing the “voice of god” narration. It doesn’t take too much away from the visuals, but the climbers aren’t all natural speakers. Some of their contributions come across as overly scripted, which I found to be a bit distracting. Also the sound mix favours the rather bombastic music, occasionally drowning out what is being said.
The film also features some footage of an interview with Beck Weathers (he sounds like he should be in an 80s action movie, doesn’t he?), one of the survivors of a blizzard that struck the summit on May 10 while the IMAX expedition were preparing themselves at Base Camp. Some of those who died were friends of Viesturs, adding some poignancy to his climactic ascent. Since the crew put the cameras away in order to assist in rescue efforts, the story of the disaster is told only through a few still pictures and the voice-over. On a human level, I would have done the same had I been silly enough to be up there in the first place, but the film suffers by being unable to relate the events visually. Despite the events of that day, one of the most touching moments in the film is when the team’s lead Sherpa Jamling Norgay – son of Tenzing – reaches the top for the first time, walking in his father’s famous footsteps.
As a technical achievement and as a monument to Everest the mountain, Everest the movie is remarkable. It is a fantastic advertisement for IMAX, even on the small screen. Looked at objectively however, as a documentary on the climb and on the May 10 disaster, it is hampered by the short running time and the technical constraints of the environment. At only 45 minutes long, there just isn’t room to give more than a cursory glance at most of what goes in to an expedition of this sort.
*Even though that really is what I’m doing.
**Yeah, that too.