Since the advent of broadcast television in the 1940s, Hollywood has continually introduced splashy new technologies meant to distinguish movies presented in theaters from entertainment viewed at home. Widescreen Cinerama, early attempts at 3-D and a chair-shaking audio format known as Sensurround (launched in 1974 for the movie Earthquake and abandoned in 1979) are just a few examples of the industry's efforts to transform the filmgoing experience into a special event.
Those efforts continued with a vengeance in recent years as more than a thousand theaters across the U.S. brought in ultra-high-quality, giant-screen formats — the most famous is IMAX — and many more added digital 3-D, all of which command higher prices at the box office. Most of the movies made to showcase these capabilities are action-adventure-fantasy films targeted at very young audiences. But what about older folks and their supposedly large disposable incomes?
The fall of 2015 brings a succession of high-profile, high-tech event movies targeted for the first time at older and more sophisticated audiences (though these films mostly fit the action-adventure mold to one extent or another). The first is Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur's Everest, which tells the true story of a May 1996 ascent to the world's tallest peak, a climb that killed eight people.
In its first week of release, Everest screens at IMAX 3-D theaters — old-school 2-D and 3-D screenings begin Sept. 25, mainly to help spread the word about Hollywood's new era of event films for grown-ups. But waiting for low-tech presentation is a mistake, because Everest doesn't have much to offer beyond its epic visuals.
Those visuals may be enough to satisfy many viewers. In IMAX 3-D, Everest captures the majesty of the natural world as few films have done. It leaves no doubt about the tremendous courage — and questionable judgment — required to attain a summit 29,029 feet high, more than 5 miles above sea level. But the film barely addresses the psychology of those who feel compelled to conquer the mountain. There's only so much drama that can be generated by watching people cling to a mountainside in a terrible storm, especially when the film hasn't allowed us to get to know them, and the outcome already has been widely detailed in documentaries and best-selling books.
Everest seems hamstrung by that familiarity, if only because it derives from a large number of conflicting first-person accounts of what actually happened on two disastrous days. Overcrowding on Everest at peak times of year played a role in the tragedy, but the film drops the issue almost as soon as it's raised, apparently to avoid placing blame on individual climbers and guides who mostly are still alive (34 people in multiple, competing expeditions tried to reach the summit on those fateful days). Every serious climber in the world reportedly has an opinion about the true causes of the '96 Everest disaster. Their ideas might provide the starting point for a very interesting film.