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‘Everest’ and IMAX are a perfect match

Is IMAX worth it? Paying extra money for 3-D is often a tough decision, and throwing down cash for IMAX is an even harder call. In general, I’d call both unnecessary.

“Everest,” however, is ideal for IMAX. The new action-disaster epic doesn’t just justify the large screen – it makes it almost essential.

It is hard, in fact, to recall a recent man vs. the elements flick with such an epic scope. There are moments in “Everest” – especially on IMAX screens – that will leave audiences breathless. And despite some notable flaws, it is a satisfying, well-mounted production.

This is a slight surprise, since director Baltasar Kormákur is no one’s idea of a sure thing. His previous action ventures, the Mark Wahlberg smuggling thriller “Contraband” and the forgettable Denzel Washington vehicle “2 Guns,” were pedestrian at best.

But in “Everest,” he has crafted spectacular set pieces and a true sense of place. During the two-hour drama about the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that left eight dead, the audience develops a strong sense of the mountain’s geography. This feeling heightens the tension; we know how difficult rescue will be.

The ’96 Everest disaster was documented in harrowing detail by author Jon Krakauer in his stunning “Into Thin Air.” For readers of the book, “Everest” the film is still a winning experience, yet one whose ultimate impact is undeniably dented by the knowledge of how things turned out.

While Jake Gyllenhaal is the lineup’s biggest name, the real star of the film is Jason Clarke. The actor plays New Zealander Rob Hall, the leader of a guiding agency called Adventure Consultants. As the film opens, Hall’s group is preparing to lead a group of civilians up Mount Everest – for a price, and after weeks of training.

These climbers include Texas doctor Beck Weathers, played by the great Josh Brolin; mild-mannered mailman Doug Hansen, portrayed by John Hawkes; and Krakauer, brought to life by “House of Cards” scene-stealer Michael Kelly.

Back in New Zealand is Hall’s pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley), while the Adventure Consultants team includes actors Emily Watson (“Angela’s Ashes”), Elizabeth Debicki (“The Great Gatsby”) and Sam Worthington (“Avatar”). Gyllenhaal appears in a surprisingly small but welcome role as Scott Fischer, the chilled-out leader of a competing agency called Mountain Madness.

It’s a large cast, and meeting so many individuals adds to the drama. Scores of groups have planned to summit Everest on the same day, creating a logjam that makes a difficult situation even trickier.

The tension ramps up quickly, and the film’s leisurely start also contributes to the later suspense. In addition, the inherent drama is increased even more thanks to the acting of Brolin, Hawkes, Watson, Gyllenhaal, and, especially, Clarke. His Rob Hall is the film’s leader, and its emotional anchor.

Kormákur devotes time to each of these figures, although Knightley is rather wasted in a role that requires little more than sobbing. The direction and writing (by the talented William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) hint at the tragedies to come throughout the film. Whether one knows the result of the climbs or not, there is a strong sense of what went wrong, and how nature and luck made success nearly impossible.

Once a walloping storm hits the climbers, things slow down a bit, and the proceedings grow a bit repetitive. But there is always this cast, and those visuals. They combine for an action spectacle that truly delivers.

While it will likely prove effective on any size screen, plunk down the extra money for IMAX and you’ll likely find “Everest” an impressively immersive experience – so immersive, in fact, that you might just scratch “climbing Mount Everest” off your bucket list.

Everest

3.5 stars

Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Running time: 121 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for intense peril and disturbing images.

The Lowdown: The true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, focusing on the survival attempts of two expedition groups.

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