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Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4
After a while, you come to expect spectacular visuals from IMAX
documentaries. Sweeping shots of glorious vistas have become the norm for
works created using the giant scale film format. All too often though,
the human element ends up lacking. In many IMAX documentaries, we watch
nature at its most majestic and humanity at its most distant. Consider
"Everest" the exception to the rule. Despite the awesome footage of the
29,028 foot mountain, where the snow blows straight up, temperatures drop
to 100 degrees below zero and avalanches are as routine as the sunset,
it's the human story that packs the most punch here. Far more than a
grand travelogue, "Everest" quite literally is a story of life and death.
When mountaineer and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker David Breashears agreed
to document the ascent to the top of the world, he knew he had signed on
for a logistic nightmare. A standard IMAX camera weighs 80 pounds and a
single 500 foot roll of large format film, which can only capture 90
seconds of action, weighs an additional five pounds. Breashears worked
with engineers to create a specially-modified camera weighing only 35
pounds, designed to withstand the extreme temperatures of the mountain.
Even with the modifications, the process was still daunting. For example,
tests showed that the cameras could not be loaded while wearing gloves,
quite a problem for technicians at 20 below zero.
After a great deal of testing, the equipment was deemed suitable and in
May 1996, the expedition began. Then, on May 10th, tragedy struck when 23
climbers in a seperate expedition were caught in a horrific white-out
that claimed several lives, including two of the group's leaders.
Suddenly, the IMAX team found themselves documenting a tragedy, along
with their own stirring rescue of one of the survivors, who stumbled into
the IMAX group's camp suffering severe frostbite to his extremities.
The subsequent footage is both nightmarish and absolutely riveting. In
one scene, a man calls his wife in New Zealand, naming their unborn child
shortly before freezing to death. The film allows the viewer to get to
know the IMAX climbers, making their emotional comments on the tragedy
before them all the more devastating. Narrated by actor Liam Neeson,
Breashears' film captures the dazzling visuals one expects from an IMAX
production; colorful prayer wheels spinning in Katmandu before the
mission begins, a team member
carefully traversing a ladder perilously balanced over a bottomless chasm,
climbers dangling over massive cliffs of ice, and the sheer grandeur of
the mountain itself. But ultimately, it's the story of the climbers and
their impractical, dangerous, amazing quest to achieve that lingers long
after you leave the theater.
Humans are impossibly foolish creatures, and our remarkable ability to
unrealistic goals, coupled with the resolve to make those goals happen
despite all odds, allows us to occassionally reach the heights of glory.
"Everest," the finest IMAX documentary to date, captures all of that,
along with a portrait of nature at its most awe-inspiring.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott