Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Writers: J. Mills Goodloe, Charles Martin (novel), Chris Weitz (screenplay)
Composer: Ramin Djawadi
Starring: Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Thriller
There’s just something alluring about survival stories. Humans have it easy. We’ve drastically altered the natural landscape, amassed huge amounts of resources, and depending on where one lives, we can live comfortably. So it’s intriguing to see how one would cope if all those things were stripped away. This time around it’s Hollywood superstars, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet’s turn to try and beat the odds, in the ultimate test of their humanity. As complete strangers, the question is what will harm them more: the uncontrollability of nature or the unfamiliarity of the other person? At least there’s a dog to pat when things get rough.
Violence/Scary Images: The majority of the plot revolves around the survivors of a plane crash struggling to stay alive in a frozen landscape. Apart from the crash itself, there are close calls beside cliffs, the constant risk of freezing to death, falling through ice, discussions about starvation, they fight off vicious wildlife, and suffer various injuries, some of which are deep gashes that bleed and require stitches. A frozen corpse is buried. While some blood is seen from open wounds from time to time, along with a few shots of a character butchering a dead animal, this film is very low in gore and violence.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped once. The s-word is said about three times. “God” and “Jesus” are uttered as exclamations only on occasion. One character needs help with urinating, but the camera retreats to a more dignified angle.
Drug/Alcohol References: Only in a medical context – an intravenous drip needs to be applied, using less than ideal ingredients.
Spiritual Content: One character remarks on how amazing God is in designing the human body to adapt to such harsh environmental conditions.
Sexual Content: An unmarried man and woman kiss passionately several times. There is a sex scene. The camera lingers during the act. It does not cut away or fade to black. The characters are naked but no private parts are actually seen, only the side of their bodies and the cleavage area of the breasts. A woman wears a white, see-through top. Characters walk around in medical gowns.
Other Negative Content: The characters occasionally blame one another for their rotten situation. Sometimes their attitude is rather nasty and unloving.
Positive Content: The film has a lot to say about one’s gratefulness about being alive, and also the need and joy in caring for one’s neighbor.
Watching the trailer for The Mountain Between Us, it’s easy to assume it’s a survivalist natured thriller when it actually is a stronger contender in the romance genre. Ben and Alex, played by Idris Elba and Kate Winslet respectively, are total strangers when they first meet, though it’s lovely to watch their feelings develop throughout the course of the film, despite some uneven pacing with their relationship.
For the most part, the story deals with the day-to-day problems the protagonists face when stranded in a frozen, barren landscape. So it takes a while to finally uncover the meat of the narrative and to develop a deeper focus on the characters’ psyches, especially when for the most part they’re literally just trying to stay alive. From the beginning, what we know about Ben and Alex is essentially what we see in the trailer. Honestly, if you’ve watched the preview, then you have basically witnessed the entire first act. The Mountain Between Us doesn’t waste any time getting them stuck on that titular mountain–about fifteen minutes of screen time, tops! So the audience undergoes the same journey as Ben and Alex. We learn about them at the same time as they learn about each other.
It’s a nice idea, but it’s one that doesn’t necessarily work. With an extraordinarily short first act, the audience hasn’t had time to invest enough interest in the two leads. With patience, it does get there. You do end up caring. It’s a slow burn of a movie. While all the danger is in the second act, it’s actually the last third where the story finally starts coming together, exploring feelings that are difficult to articulate, reminiscent of Lost in Translation and Castaway. The Mountain Between Us is ultimately a lovely tale about what it means to be alive, to be granted second chances, accepting when things are out of one’s control, and that special, inexplicable bond two humans share when surviving times of hardship.
At its core, there is a good story here, waiting to be told, so it’s unfortunate that it is not presented well. The Mountain Between Us has a mountain of problems (I’m sorry, just couldn’t help myself)! For starters, the story is horribly convenient and rather contrived. Ben is a neurosurgeon, while Alex is a journalist. From a writing perspective, it’s a decent choice of occupations, because Ben can fix any physical ailments while Alex advances the plot with her prying, investigative questions. In a movie, it just takes the fun out of everything. Let’s be honest here; would you rather watch a neurosurgeon look after someone’s injuries or a person who has absolutely no idea what they’re doing? The Mountain Between Us is very nice to its characters, but in doing so it removes a lot of conflicts, which ultimately means there’s little drama.
For a film that gives the impression it’s trying to be a survival thriller, Ben and Alex have one of the easiest experiences in the genre. Not once was I concerned that they were in danger of dying. They start talking about dying of starvation fairly early on, while they still have food reserves. It’s as over exaggerated as Bear Grylls suggesting he may have to start distilling urine ten minutes into a Man vs. Wild episode. I swear I have seen teams on Survivor with less food reserves than Ben and Alex. “You’ll be all right,” was a thought that frequently went through my mind. Despite battling for their lives, the stakes felt oddly low in this movie. There’s more tension to be found in episodes of I Shouldn’t Be Alive.
Ben and Alex aren’t the only ones. There’s also a dog! As much as I adore them, this is the one and only film I’ve ever come across where the addition of a canine has detracted from the movie. The Mountain Between Us has some serious problems with what I’m going to call, ‘dog physics’. As the light-winged aircraft begins to break up, plunging towards the earth, Ben and Alex helplessly jostling in their seats, the dog just stands in the aisle, completely chill. Kate Winslet eventually grabs onto his collar as the plane descends, yet it’s more of an afterthought, as though no one on crew really sat down to consider what to do with the dog on the set until they started shooting. It makes the crash sequence unintentionally hilarious.
There are other moments as well. Idris Elba and Kate Winslet weakly trudge through knee-deep snow, looking like they’re in agony and running low on energy. Meanwhile, the dog bounds along, having an absolute blast in the cold weather, and if it weren’t for the depth of the snow, it would no doubt have a case of the zoomies. They’re only giving the dog tiny scraps of food. Where is it finding the energy? In a quick yet relatable shot, the dog does at one point eat something mysterious, which causes Ben to question what it has in its mouth, and of course, the dog just chews it all the more swiftly. But for the most part, the dog shouldn’t be the perfect image of health. Granted, being the most expendable character, its presence does add some much-needed stakes to this adventure.
It’s the small details that are overlooked in this project, and this movie does have one too many technical issues than normal for a production of this caliber. Most notably, the sound seems abnormally soft particularly during scenes when the drama is set inside a building. I watched The Mountain Between Us in one of Event’s VMAX cinemas; it’s the biggest theatre on offer in the cinema complex, where patrons pay slightly extra for the plush seats, extra large screen, and superb sound. On top of this, this particular cinema was only roughly two years old. So I was shocked when some scenes sounded like it was originating from a television with the volume turned down. Was the boom operator standing sixteen feet away from the actors? The background noises weren’t drowning out the dialogue, so the actual fault isn’t within the mix itself, but it’s as though the sound editor didn’t pump up the grand master fader in post.
There are other odd decisions with the cinematography. At one point Ben comments on how beautiful the scenery is, though, in that shot, the camera focuses on the back of the characters’ heads in the foreground. The lens doesn’t roll to see what Ben’s observing, which is what one would naturally expect. Guess we’ll just have to take Ben’s word for it!
The two leads have a rather disorderly relationship, swinging back and forth from frustration to complete devotion to each other. In some ways, the narrative may have been stronger with a more nuanced approach, with the biggest strides being made in the third act. But as it stands, some scenes show the characters making huge leaps forward in their unevenly paced relationship, causing the camera work to suddenly change its approach. It goes from being a mild wilderness adventure to feeling like a Nicholas Sparks film in a matter of seconds. The style of cinematography flits between the two different genres, making the film visually disjointed.
It’s sadly most noticeable in the final scene. Close-ups are used, but to get the angle so tight, the image is slightly distorted, almost like the fish-eye effect. It’s an ugly shot. It wasn’t meant to be. It was a poor choice in lens. It’s hard to know who is to blame here–the director of photography or the director.
I’m leaning towards the latter. After an awkward finish, the credits roll, and the song Dusk Till Dawn by ZAYN featuring Sia starts blaring. Nothing wrong with the song itself, but after watching a film that was mostly set in natural landscapes, cutting to a piece of pop music that’s heavily played over the radio doesn’t continue the tone of the movie. Repeating one of the more upbeat instrumental pieces of Ramin Djawadi’s beautiful soundtrack would have been less of a jarring choice. The pop song could have easily played second later on in the credits. That’s the pattern most movies seem to follow.
The script and story aren’t perfect, and neither are some of the film’s technical elements. The strongest department may actually be makeup! I don’t have any complaints about the look of the wounds or scars. It’s certainly surprising to see so many weak elements in a movie that’s not only nationally released across multiple countries, but also features two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors. They do well in this film, though we’ve seen Kate Winslet and Idris Elba do better.
The same could be said for director Hany Abu-Assad. In the past, he has had multiple nominations in the Best Foreign Picture category in the Academy Awards. His accolades were no doubt what drew such popular actors to sign up to this project. So he isn’t incompetent, but he is better than this. Not sure what happened here, but The Mountain Between Us is not his best work.
This film is a rather clunky mix of genres and it doesn’t really master either of them. It does however still provide some light entertainment. If you’re into romances you may enjoy this film, as opposed to those who are looking more for a survival thriller. There is a decent story here, but it could have been told better, in the hands of another director. I feel ashamed to even say this, but I hope one day this gets remade.
+ Decent message. + Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. + Make-up. + Will please those looking for a romance film with a few thrills.
- Directing. - Some odd choices in cinematography and music. - The genres don't always mix well. - Some scenes sound abnormally soft. - Bad dog physics. - Oh so convenient. - Too nice on the characters for a survival thriller.
The Bottom Line
The Mountain Between Us is mildly entertaining with some worthwhile messages in regards to love and life, though the story may have fared better in the hands of another director. There are too many technical problems to excuse, while the narrative is too convenient to create the tension needed for a survival thriller. However, if you’re craving a romance, this may suffice.