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'Everest' aims high and reaches impressive cinematic heights

I do not enjoy hiking. There, I said it.

As someone who has lived in the beautiful topography of the Sonoran desert for over 18 years, I probably just made a sacrilegious statement.

Certainly, I do recognize Arizona’s surrounding natural beauty.

When taking the occasional hike, I appreciate my time in the great outdoors, but I am partial to the comfortable confines of the great indoors.

A thermostat marking 71 degrees in the winter and 78 in the summer, the smell of hot coffee, a strong Wi-Fi signal, and a comfortable couch are my strong preferences, and therefore – for me - watching a group of 30 and 40-somethings attempting to ascend to the very top of Mount Everest – 29,000 feet high – seems like trying to build a ladder to Mars.

In other words, it is an incomprehensible task.

In director Baltasar Kormakur’s “Everest”, he leads an all-star cast on this monumental journey and gives the audience a look at this unique test of will and endurance.

Climbing Everest is nothing new, as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first ascended to the top in 1953, but the film is set in 1996 where Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) attempts to lead a group of eager climbers to the top as well.

Rob has reached Everest’s peak before. In fact, it is in his job description as the lead expert of Adventure Consultants.

Rob is perfect for this gig.

He is experienced, keenly aware of the brutal elements, possesses a “can-do” attitude, cares about his clients’ well-being, and calls it quits when a goal is out of reach.

He is also a devoted husband with an expected wife (Keira Knightley) waiting for his safe return.

Jan (Knightley) has a right to be concerned, because climbing Everest is obviously dangerous, and Kormakur provides stunning sequences after more stunning sequences when presenting the imposing mountain in all its glory.

Using helicopters or drones – or both – the camera swoops, rises, dives, and pans across thousands of feet of rock and snow.

One particular shot floats over and looks down upon a group of climbers on a narrow walking bridge (with bright, smiling faces looking up), as the sunshine-filled base - with a rich forest of lush green trees - stirs wonder and positive feelings.

Contrast this with later sequences of beastly grayish/blackish granite and metamorphic rock, and snow ripping sideways in the form of ice chips or grave projectiles.

We also see avalanches suddenly tumble without a hint of a reason, but we cannot see the invisible mountain air.

The air is most deadly element.

At a height in which 727s routinely travel, the mountain is surrounded by air exempt of adequate oxygen levels, and the climbers suffer due to the lack of O2 and the inhuman cold.

Now, these climbers are battle-tested and literally weathered prior to this bold ascent, but – quite frankly – it is difficult to keep track of them all.

The film rightly focuses on a select few: Beck (Josh Brolin), Doug (John Hawkes) and Scott (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Beck and Doug paid thousands of dollars for this experience and are trying to conquer Everest for the first time.

On the other hand, Scott is a free-spirited guide – with a drink and an “it’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude” persona in tow.

The film feels somewhat like “Twister” (1996) in the beginning, as many adrenaline junkies bond with one another prior to facing one of nature’s most daunting spectacles.

“Everest” could have taken a sophomoric turn – like “Twister” - and only relied on special effects and the landscape to flex its cinematic muscle.

This movie’s special effects do bring several jaw-dropping moments, but the film is anything but CGI-driven.

At its very core, “Everest” - based on a true story - is a moving, human drama.

Credit the setting for providing a backdrop of major concern, but credit the actors like Clarke, Hawkes, Brolin, Gyllenhaal, Knightley, Sam Worthington, and Emily Watson for delivering convincing performances which leave our hearts in our throats.

After experiencing 2 hours and 1 minute of “Everest” in an IMAX theatre, the bravado of these climbers left me utterly amazed, exhausted and bit overwhelmed.

Maybe, I’ll venture out to hike Camelback Mountain again in 2016, or perhaps 2017. (3.5/4 stars)

Image credits: Universal Pictures

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