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Movie Review

'Everest' Is a Spectacle on Imax Screen

October 16, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

If you haven't quite gotten around to climbing the world's highest mountain, "Everest," the new Imax look at the top of the world, will both show you what you've been missing and thoroughly discourage you from attempting it yourself.

Just now reaching metropolitan Los Angeles seven months after its premiere, "Everest" is on its way to becoming the most successful Imax film ever, and that's not only because its super-large screen format is ideal for showing the astonishing heights of this 29,028-foot peak.

Also a factor is that circumstances put the Imax filmmakers on the mountain in May 1996 as a real-life nightmare was unfolding. This was the moment when, as detailed in the best-selling "Into Thin Air," eight members of other expeditions died in attempts on the summit.

Though none of that tragedy was filmed, a part of "Everest's" 48-minute length is devoted to rescue efforts that led to the miraculous survival of climber Beck Weathers in wind-chill conditions of 100 below zero and to the understandably emotional reaction the Imax climbers had to the deaths of people who were friends and colleagues.

The idea that the bulky Imax camera could ever be transported up through the dread "death zone" to the very top of Everest sounds preposterous. But in fact a slimmed-down model, weighing 48 pounds when fully loaded and capable of operating at 40 degrees below zero, was blessed by the Buddhist monks of Thyangboche Monastery and carried by hardy Sherpas all the way to the summit.

Up there with the camera was David Breashears, the film's cinematographer and (along with Greg MacGillivray and Stephen Judson) one of its three directors. Because the Imax camera's magazine holds only 90 seconds of film before it needs to be replaced, Breashears and company tried not to shoot anything that wasn't going to be in the final film. The result is a dizzying collection of heroic vistas that words are not equal to describing.

"Everest" not only shows us the beauty of the mountain, it also details how painfully arduous getting up and down on it is. Everest's most celebrated obstacles, with names like the Lhotse Face and the Khumbu Icefall, are shown in discouraging detail, as are ice crevices that seem to extend downward to eternity.

Expected to surmount all these difficulties was a four-person climbing team, the most prominent being American Ed Viesture, who had scaled Everest three times previously and who was enough of a zealot to convince his wife, Paula, to take their honeymoon on the mountain. Joining them were two female climbers, Araceli Segarra of Spain and Sumiyuo Tsuzuki of Japan, and Jamling Norgay, the son of the great Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who had accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on Everest's first successful climb in 1953.

Watching these people train in preparation for the climb led to some of the film's most compelling footage, including shots of Segarra doing perilous rock-climbing in Cabo San Lucas and Viesture taking a biking vacation in Utah's scenic badlands.

"Everest's" visuals are all they should be, but the film's script leaves a considerable amount to be desired despite being co-written by veteran outdoor journalist Tim Cahill. With narrator Liam Neeson getting all wound up about "a place where only the strong and lucky survive," a lot of "Everest's" narrative exhibits the gee-whiz sentimentality of true-life adventure and exploration films of the 1930s.

The climbers deserve all the acclaim they get; it would be nicer if it wasn't so portentously done.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: descriptions of death on the mountain, pictures of a man recovering from severe frostbite.

'Everest'

A MacGillivray Freeman Films production. Directors Greg MacGillivray, David Breashears, Stephen Judson. Producers Greg MacGillivray, David Breashears, Stephen Judson, Alec Lorimore. Screenplay Tim Cahill & Stephen Judson. Cinematographer David Breashears. Music George Harrison. Narrator Liam Neeson. Running time: 48 minutes.

* Playing at the California Science Center Imax Theater, 700 State Drive, Exposition Park, Los Angeles. (213) 744-2014.

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