Watching the trailer for “The Mountain Between Us” got me to thinking about other movies about people surviving a horrific plane crash like “Alive,” “Cast Away,” “The Edge” and “The Grey.” You watch these characters struggle to survive in an environment they couldn’t be less prepared to deal with, and they always prove to be compelling as you wonder what you would do in a similar situation. Even movies like “The Blue Lagoon” and “Swept Away” come to mind as both are about a man and a woman trapped together on a deserted island, and it made me wonder what kind of motion picture “The Mountain Between Us” would end up being. Could it be another story of human beings trapped in a harsh environment which tests their limits of survival, or is it one where two strangers to fall in love in a time and place they otherwise would not?
After watching “The Mountain Between Us,” which is based on the novel by Charles Martin, I can confirm it is a combination of both kinds as it deals with a man and woman stuck in an intensely frigid environment after their charter plane crashes in the High Uintas Wilderness, and it is only a matter of time before they fall for one another even as they do their best to keep their mind on survival and making it back to civilization. What results is nothing new as this is territory has been covered countless times from one decade to the next, and yet it is still a very compelling motion picture regardless of the familiar elements.
The main reason this film works as well as it does is because of its main stars, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. They both are always working at the top of their game no matter what project they appear in, and they work incredibly well off of one another in each scene they share with one another. But more importantly, they are able to render their characters as relatable and down to earth people in ways their individual stardom might otherwise not allow. Winslet and Elba are among the most recognizable movie stars working right now, and this never compromises their work here in my opinion.
Alex Martin (Winslet) is a photojournalist desperate to get back home in time for her wedding to Mark (Dermot Mulroney), and Dr. Ben Bass (Elba) is a neurosurgeon eager to get back to patients in desperate need of his assistance. Their flights end up getting cancelled due to a severe weather front approaching them, and yet their desperation overrides the need for safety. Alex, seeing Ben and she have the same problem, join together to enlist the services of Walter (Beau Bridges), a friendly pilot who agrees to fly them to another airport before the weather gets really bad. But as fate would have it, Walter suffers a stroke in mid-flight, and their plane ends up crashing in the frigid wilderness.
I have to give director Hany Abu-Assad credit for his handling of the plane crash sequence. Somehow, he manages to have his camera moving all around the plane’s interior from the back where Winslet and Elba are seated to the front where Bridges is at the controls, and it all looks like it was done in a single shot. Steven Spielberg shot a similar scene in “War of the Worlds” in which his camera went inside and outside of a van as Tom Cruise navigates it through the debris-laden New Jersey highway, but Abu-Assad instead keeps things relegated to the action inside the plane.
Indeed, plane crashes in movies tend to be more frightening when you are made to feel you are inside the airplane to where the director doesn’t bother with many, or any, exterior shots. Considering how Winslet, Elba and Bridges are also in a plane prone to mechanical failure more often than not makes this crash sequence all the more terrifying and brutal. Plane crashes are common in movies, but this one reminded me of the kind which work best on the silver screen.
Alex and Ben are trapped in the icy mountains of Utah and have suffered painful injuries which force them to stay in one place to recuperate and wait for rescue. Their only other companion is Walter’s dog who is quick to warm up, figuratively speaking, to Winslet, but not to Elba. Eventually, they are forced to realize their hopes of rescue are dwindling with each day, and despite their differing opinions on whether they should stay or go, they realize they need one another to make it through the harsh wilderness which surrounds them as it represents their only chance for survival. As the story goes on, we see the obstacles they face are not just physical, but psychological as well.
I liked how Alex and Ben hint at the many disaster pictures they have watched after their plane makes an unexpected and violent stop. Ben is good at fixing up wounds and stabilizing a broken leg, and Alex keeps reminding him about the rule of threes: you can survive 3 minutes without air or in icy water, you can survive 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment, you can survive 3 days without water, and you can survive 3 weeks without food. These rules remain strong in our minds as they face deadly animals and icy temperatures their insulated clothing can only handle so much of.
There were a couple of questions, however, which I couldn’t help but ask while “The Mountain Between Us.” Why was Ben so slow to create an S.O.S. sign outside of the wreckage for approaching planes to see? This would have been the first thing I would have done. Also, these two still look quite well-groomed for people who are in no position to bathe themselves while being lost for weeks at a time. After watching “The Revenant” in which Leonardo DiCaprio and ends up sleeping in a dead horse’s carcass to keep from freezing to death, I couldn’t help but think this movie could have used more in the way of realism. Compared to that Oscar-winning film, Winslet and Elba look to have a bit easier.
Regardless, I still found “The Mountain Between Us” to be very compelling film as Winslet and Elba inhabit their characters with a fearlessness as they are forced to expose one another’s vulnerabilities as their survival comes to depend on knowing more about who they are. Winslet, in particular, has an amazing moment where she tells Elba about a refugee girl she once befriended. The way Winslet plays this scene is incredible as she is able to paint for us a vivid experience of the things Alex experienced to where no cinematic flashback is needed to further illustrate what she has been through. love it when filmmakers trust their actors to where they can deliver moments so fully to where we have all the information we need.
And yes, their characters do eventually fall for one another, but thankfully “The Mountain Between Us” never becomes a romantic tale of the cringe-inducing variety like “The Blue Lagoon” or “Swept Away” (and by that, I mean Guy Ritchie’s god-awful remake). The moment where they first kiss is wonderfully acted as I expected one or both of them to say “we shouldn’t” or something equally silly, but Winslet and Elba still manage to say so much more than words can to where dialogue is not necessary.
Regardless of the flaws inherent in “The Mountain Between Us,” its these two remarkable actors who keep us hooked to where their familiar storyline felt fresher than it would have in the hands of others. While familiarity can breed contempt, and this isn’t the first time we have seen Winslet plunge into icy waters, it never takes away from the story’s power or the terrific performances of its leads. Long before we arrive at the movie’s climax, we come to realize the title not only refers to physical obstacles these characters are forced to face, but the emotional ones as well. Considering how we all build emotional walls over the years, tearing them down can be as hard as climbing a mountain, and I don’t mean Mount Everest.