September 17, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Everest retells a real-life saga that still shocks after two decades: how a combination of terrible weather, unfortunate decisions and plain bad luck resulted in one of the worst mountain-climbing tragedies in history. Over the course of one May 1996 storm, eight climbers perished on Mount Everest. Journalist Jon Krakauer, who survived the ordeal, wrote movingly about the catastrophe in his harrowing 1997 best seller Into Thin Air; a made-for-TV adaptation of the book followed shortly after; and climber-filmmaker David Breashears filmed partly on location for almost unbearably vivid footage in the stunning 1998 Imax documentary also called Everest.

To the horror and tension built into what we already know happened–people died almost 29,000 feet (8,840 m) up, their frozen bodies joining an icescape of corpses–filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband, 2 Guns) brings to this 21st century Everest an Icelandic sense of snow and a theatrical flair for action sequences. He and cinematographer Salvatore Totino (The Da Vinci Code) have a satisfying command of the Imax 3-D format in which the movie is ideally viewed. The screenplay, credited to William Nicholson (Les Misérables) and Simon Beaufoy (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), is solid, if too squarely beholden to standby scenes of worried wives weeping at home while the menfolk follow their mad bliss.

Then again, the addition of a few wifely characters creates job openings for Keira Knightley and Robin Wright. In fact, the wattage of the Everest cast is nearly as bright as the mountain is high: Jason Clarke plays the New Zealander expedition guide Rob Hall; Jake Gyllenhaal is Hall’s American competitor, Scott Fischer; Josh Brolin and John Hawkes play climbing clients Beck Weathers and Doug Hansen. Michael Kelly, so memorable in House of Cards, appears as Krakauer.

They’re good, these intrepid team players, and earnest, and committed. Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Terminator Genisys) is particularly compelling as a highly respected pro who, for the best, worst and perhaps most human of reasons, overrides his own good judgment. But the insertion of attractive Hollywood stars into a daunting landscape makes for some odd contradictions of scale as the story unfolds with white-knuckle inevitability. One minute we’re called upon to gaze up at the mountain’s so-called Death Zone above 26,000 feet (7,900 m), where humans are not meant to survive; another we’re close up on the reassuringly familiar faces of Gyllenhaal and Brolin as they delineate their characters–Fischer the freewheeling American guide, Weathers the good ol’ rich Texan who wants customer satisfaction for the big heap of money he has paid in pursuit of this most dangerous hobby.

Everest is a bit up in the air about which is bigger, movie star or mountain. But don’t be fooled for a second. During the (injury-free) production, an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides working nearby on the Khumbu Icefall–only 13 bodies were recovered after a two-day search. The mountain will always win.


This appears in the September 28, 2015 issue of TIME.

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