Wednesday, 23 September 2015


What drives us as a species to undertake challenges which test our endurance and could very well result in our deaths? Hubris? Stupidity? The pursuit of glory? A death wish? Whatever it is, it has seen humankind scale the greatest heights on Earth and proceed beyond them to the Moon.

'Because it's there' seems to be the obvious answer as to why we challenge ourselves to climb a mountain or go into space, but what in turn drives those adventurers to make the journey home when shit hits the fan, all that could go wrong does go wrong, and death seems like the only -- and easiest -- option?

The desire to conquer and the will to survive are at the heart of two films currently in, or about to land in cinemas: Baltasar Kormakur's Everest (Universal Pictures) and Ridley Scott's The Martian (20th Century Fox): each boasting elements of both the disaster and the survival film genre, with differing kinds of thrills and varying degrees of success.

Everest recounts a disastrous 1996 expedition on that titular mountain, where a group of climbers from around the globe sought to scale the world's highest peak. All were expert climbers and up for the physical challenge; not just the endurance required to climb day after day and endure unforgiving weather conditions, but also the effects of altitude which can compromise the lungs, cause swelling of the brain and, ultimately, can result in death.

These events, which sees things go from bad to worse, unfold in a matter-of-fact manner; Kormakur and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson seemingly determined to honour the memory of those who didn't survive the climb without needlessly embellishing their ordeal. That we care so much about who lives and who dies perhaps has more to do with the skill of the actors -- Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, and Jake Gyllenhaal -- than the screenplay, which doesn't flesh them out a great deal: phone calls to family members (Robin Wright plays Brolin's wife; Keira Knightley, with Kiwi accent, is Clarke's expecting spouse) providing emotional touchstones.

Not surprisingly, where Everest excels is in recreating the conditions faced by the climbers -- snow, cold, freakish storms, occasional small avalanche -- and in depicting the mountain itself: location shooting and CGI blend almost seamlessly to put you in their shoes, their flimsy tents, and on the unforgiving mountainside. (The use of 3D format is neither here nor there, though to see it on an IMAX screen would be something.)

A giant step beyond Everest and the Moon is Mars. We haven't yet put a human on the Red Planet but in Ridley Scott's The Martian, set in a not-too-distant yet recognizable future, we have. And we've managed to leave one behind.

Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead following a Martian storm with his fellow space travelers forced to abandon him. Watney, left to his own devices and company, has to ration his supplies -- as well as grow food on a planet that has no oxygen -- long enough to keep himself alive until he can be rescued. That's more than 100-odd days so in his own words, he's going to have to science the shit out of it.

So, too, does Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, who manage to make the techno-babble as uncomplicated as possible whilst giving us a (presumably) plausible but no less fantastical depiction of what one person may do in order to survive on a desolate planet in the hopes of returning home.

And it's the scientists who are the heroes back on Earth, too. NASA's best and brightest minds (headed up by Chiwetel Ejiofor) work feverishly to calculate how best to rescue Watney, while the NASA chief (Jeff Daniels) counts the beans, and the head of media relations (Kristen Wiig) hopes she's going to be able to provide the media -- and the world -- with a feel good story whilst preparing for the worst. There's just no good way to spin losing an astronaut twice.

Much of the success of The Martian relies on the star power of Matt Damon, who makes Watney an affable fellow. In fact, so happy-go-lucky is the botanist you're left thinking his greatest challenge to survival is not a lack of oxygen or a high-carb diet but enduring the disco-filled iTunes catalog left behind by his captain (Jessica Chastain).

Watney, and Goddard's screenplay, has little time for existentialism or quiet reflection about the possibility of death. In space no-one can hear you scream, but apparently one never feels the need to, however alone and doomed they appear to be.

In that sense, Everest is more of a realistic (i.e. downer) tale of survival as opposed to the optimism of The Martian, yet it's Ridley's film that will have you on the edge of your seat, gripping your armrest or mimicking Wiig's permanent hand clasp. It's big budget movie-making that succeeds in being entertaining without dumbing down for the audience.

If only the film had been brave enough to make Watney less humorous hero and more human. That may be the only area in which Everest trumps The Martian. As a fact-based story, we're made keenly aware of the consequences as a result of those climbers' perilous mission, and their legacy. Sometimes the real heroes aren't the ones who climb the mountains or who go into space; they're the ones who are left behind.

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