Hollywood Everest

Following in the footsteps of Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, the latest offering for Himalayan buffs is none other than Everest, the movie. This film, however, is one Himalayan narrative that is unlikely to be available at the local video shop, shot as it was for special eight-storey-high Imax and Omnimax screens.

Narrated by Hollywood actor Liam Neeson, the documentary follows a climbing team comprised of Ed Viesturs (USA), Araceli Segarra (Spain), Sumiyo Tsuzuki (Japan) and Jamling Norgay (India), the last being the son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (who, along with Edmund Hillary, was the first summiteer of Everest back in 1953).

Director David Breashears and producer Greg MacGillivray created a special 35-lb (16 kg) camera that could be operated in extreme temperatures and be carried up the mountain more easily than the standard Imax camera that weighs 80 lbs (36 kg).

Everest is now the top-grossing Imax film of all time, with over USD 58 million until November 1998 in box office revenues in the US alone. In May 1998, it even managed to join the list of top-10 grossing films, a 44-min documentary competing with regular film hits.

Shot in May 1996 during the disastrous storm that claimed eight lives, the film serves as a parallel narrative to John Krakauer's bestseller Into Thin Air. Krakauer's account tells the human story of ill-prepared tourists paying upto USD 65,000 to be led up the mountain. Everest too attempts to convey the human story, but with its spectacular footage, hardcore climbing talk and sponsorship by Polartec Climate Control Fabrics (translation: fleece jackets, etc,), it comes across as a tribute to the Imax-sized egos of climbers.

To be fair to Breashears and the IMAX team, they did drop their cameras to rescue climbers from other teams. The film alludes to the daring rescues by providing still shots of the descent and miraculous recovery of US climber Beck Weathers. But in spite of these moments of heroism, Everest is overshadowed by two narratives more common to Himalaya lore.

The first is pure Americana: lone hero gets to the top no matter what. Ed Viesturs, arguably America's top climber, is the driving force behind an expedition which actually succeeds after the disastrous storm subsides.

Even though the storm kills Rob Hall, one of Viestur's fellow super-climbers, he is undeterred. Earlier in the film, Ed's wife, Paula, boasts how a five-hour mountain bike ride through the mountains of California is nothing but a "warm-up" for Ed. Yawn.

The tragic account of Rob Hall, dying on the mountain as he speaks to his pregnant wife thousands of miles away in New Zealand, are overshadowed by Ed's drive to the top. In true Captain Kirk fashion, Ed chuffs to the summit without oxygen ("just for the challenge") in the wake of the storm's carnage, passing Rob Hall's frozen corpse along the way. Paula, anxiously waiting for him at Base Camp, is there with him on their honeymoon.

The second is new age spirituality, standard fare for the Himalaya buff. We get the usual servings of monks, prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, butter lamps being lit at Buddhist shrines in Kathmandu and the Teng-boche Monastery near Mount Everest. Sagacious oriental monks reciting prayers for the success of the climb. Yawn again.

For the soundtrack, former Beatle George Harrison's new age songs from the 70s are set to strings (certainly one does enjoy the revamped "Here Comes the Sun" during the closing credits, blasting out from the 27 Imax speakers on 13,000 watts of digital sound). But after all the gringo bravado and new-age appetisers, the real star of Everest is Everest itself. Breashears manages to bring the privileged Imax viewers high-altitude scenes they will likely never see off the screen. The film explains how the Himalaya chain was formed, how avalanches occur, making it great stuff to take the kids to.

The mountain's sheer immensity, its sparkling glaciers and ice falls and the rich blue of the thin atmosphere bring us the timeless story of Chomo-lungma, the Mother Goddess of the Earth (as the Sherpas call it). But as for the human element, Everest comes across on film remarkably close to reality: a large mountain with, momentarily, some very small people climbing all over it.

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