A group of glory seekers pay US$65,000 each to a company to bag the ultimate brag - reaching the summit of Everest. Instead, over a few days in 1996, members of the climbing team are left fighting for their lives.
Even if it is based on real-life events, it takes effort to empathise with affluent adventurers who hurl themselves into danger because they can afford the obscene amounts of human sweat and talent needed to keep them alive. If Cecil the lion had somehow mauled his dentist-shooter during the hunt, few tears, if any, would be shed.
Everest (PG, 122 minutes, opens tomorrow, ****) is remarkable in that it makes you forget that you watching people neck-deep in trouble of their own making.
Co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy knows his way around true-life survival stories. He penned the Oscar-nominated 127 Hours (2010), based on the real-life story of a hiker, Aaron Ralston, who cut off his arm to free himself from a boulder after falling into a canyon.
Instead of smearing saccharine over the characters so that you care, Beaufoy and co-writer William Nicholson, as is the way with some climbers, take the harder route.
In 127 Hours, Beaufoy gets the nettlesome issue of "why?" out of the way by establishing Ralston as a restless, poetic soul. Everest's writing team, with Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (2 Guns, 2013; Contraband, 2012), does the same thing here: The climbers cannot quite articulate what drives them, but director Kormakur, with a few spectacular shots of the mountains, fills in the rest. Wide-screen visuals, shown simply and without computer enhancement or whizzy camera work, convey the solitude and spirituality of the mountains more than an entire scene of dialogue.
Thumbnail sketches of the climbers and members of the Adventure Consultants team that guided them are delivered in small bursts. If 127 Hours was a portrait, this work is a panorama.
There are more than a dozen major players, ranging from lead guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, along with the rest of the cast, giving strong performances) to climbers Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes). Then there is the technical stuff that needs to be explained - the science of altitude acclimatisation, the various camps and landmarks that dot the ascent.
Kormakur gets the balance of technical exposition and character motivation just right, and he gets it done just before the survival portion of the story, which is harrowing, edge-of-the-seat stuff.
The 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air by a team member, journalist Jon Krakauer, painted the chaos and confusion the day the storm hit the mountain crowded with climbers from various nations. This film is not based on the book, but the book's lack of definition about what exactly happened that day - What happened to a crucial cache of oxygen? Why were ladders missing? - haunts this movie.
Instead of taking away from its power, though, that fuzziness adds to its verite feel.
Another tragedy brews in We Are Your Friends (M18, 96 minutes, opens tomorrow, *½), entirely unintentionally. This misfire starts well enough, In a collage-style, flippant, music-driven introduction, we see the main characters, a bunch of Angelenos, doing menial work so they can organise club socials on weekends.
Cole (Zac Efron) wants to be a superstar deejay. His buddies are sometimes a help, but mostly they enjoy meeting new women and dealing drugs. Cole meets James (Wes Bentley), a deejay who has risen to the top of the pile, but considers the older man a sellout, someone "who plays what the people want", something a real artist would never do.
While deep in the world of West Coast underground parties and rave clubs, he meets James' assistant, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), and soon finds himself torn between his career and her.
Director and co-writer Max Joseph makes his feature debut in this, a sad blend of raunchy Entourage-style buddy movie and mushy formula romance, with nods to the visual style of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996) and the inspirational teen story arc of Efron's former franchise, the High School Musical series.
Always lesser than the sum of its parts, this work reaches a low during a scene in which Cole explains to an awestruck Sophie the science of matching beats to the mood of the party.
The scene will remind one of a primary-school child proudly showing off how he has germinated potato cuttings with wet cotton wool. It is all rather impressive if you are eight years old.
This article was first published on September 23, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.