‘Why are you climbing Everest?” It’s a simple, but intriguing, query author Jon Krakauer levels at his fellow mountaineers during a night of base-camp levity just days before the worst climbing disaster in the written history of the world’s tallest peak. The oft-repeated answer is “because it’s there.” But it’s clearly much more than that, as we’re about to discover in director Baltasar Kormakur’s eye-popping, star-studded “Everest.”

For Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), the mild-mannered mailman, it’s proving to a bunch of adoring kindergartners that great feats can be accomplished by common people. For good ol’ Texas boy Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), it’s a means to acquit an emptiness his wife (Robin Wright) and kids can’t possibly fill. For tiny, adorable Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), it’s something deep and spiritual. And for guides Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), it’s a way of making a living, charging the idle rich up to 65 grand to lead their adventure-seeking customers to what, at 29,000 feet, is literally the top of the world.

Even on a good day, not everybody makes it to the crest, done in by either the thin air (oxygen tanks are a must) or pure exhaustion brought on by the simple fact humans aren’t meant to function at that altitude. But on a bad day, which May 10, 1996, most certainly was, the mountain can be deadly. Before that particular weekend was over, eight climbers would perish in what was determined to be the worst storm in the history of Everest.

With the aid of screenwriters William Nicholson and Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy, and an avalanche of fine performances, Kormakur (“2 Guns”) vividly recreates every harrowing moment of that doomed expedition in breathtaking IMAX 3-D. The result is the most immersive film I’ve seen since “Gravity.” If the theaters cranked the AC down to 10 degrees, you’d feel like you’re on the mountain with them, especially when the skin-rippling winds thunder through the Dolby speakers. Many a time, you absolutely believe you’re about to slip into a bottomless crevasse – and hopefully die before the frostbite literally eats you alive. Then there are the lingering questions over whether the steep personal and financial losses are worth that exhilarating bucket-list moment that’s gone in a flash.

It’s impressive. So much so, I’d say “Everest” is a lock to pick up Oscar nominations for cinematographer Salvatore Totino and the entire special-effects crew. It’s also one of the few times I’m recommending you spend the extra bucks to see a movie in IMAX. In fact, I think it’s the only way to fully appreciate and understand the pure artistry of “Everest.” That’s a compliment, but it would be more of one if the terrific visuals had something to complement them – like say compelling characters and story.

As with the weakest mountain climbers, “Everest” oversteps its bounds, presenting us with so many people there’s no hope of developing a single one of them in a tight two-hour span. And Kormakur and company don’t stop with the climbers, we’re also introduced to the wives of Rob Hall (Keira Knightley) and Beck Weathers (Wright). And then there are Hall’s coworkers at Adventure Consultants (Emily Watson and Elizabeth Debicki), who are repeatedly seen fretting and crying back at base camp. At times, it reaches the crest of melodrama, most cringingly when Wright is on the phone frantically demanding the U.S. government send a helicopter to Nepal to pluck her stinking-rich husband off the mountaintop.

And that brings me to my biggest beef with the movie: the economic elite. Ever since seeing a report on HBO’s “Real Sports” a few months ago about wealthy Americans needlessly endangering the lives of their poorly paid sherpas just so they can do something to brag about to their haughty dinner guests, I’ve acquired a considerable dislike for weekend climbers, which defines most of the characters in the movie.

“Everest” covertly flaunts that same attitude of power and privilege, never once giving an ounce of credit to the sherpas, without whom there would be little to no ascending of the mountain.

Yet, I’m embarrassed to admit that none of that made any difference while I was actually watching “Everest.” Only after did it enter my mind. And that leaves me torn. I loved the experience, but hated the execution. So, I guess it’s a lot like climbing Everest. It’s thrilling getting to the top, but once there, and you’re about to head back to reality, you can’t help asking yourself, “Is that all there is?”


Movie review
EVEREST(PG-13 for intense peril and disturbing images.)
Cast includes Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Keira Knightley.
Grade: B