Sometimes, while seated in a cinema, you can be treated to a moment where something about the film you are watching simply clicks into place for you. This can be great – maybe a risky performance really shifts into gear, or a particular plot turn finally hooks you in, or the camera thankfully starts objectifying an attractive man – but then again, it can also be during ‘The Mountain Between Us’, when you realise that you might just be watching the best unintentional comedy of the year.
Playing like Nicholas Sparks’ mid-flight fever dream, ‘The Mountain Between Us’ is the story of Alex (Kate Winslet), an adventurous, instinctive photojournalist, and Ben (Idris Elba), a talented, closed-off neurosurgeon. They meet after an incoming storm cancels their flights, leaving her scrambling to get to New York for her wedding the next day, and him trying to get back to the East Coast to perform a life-saving surgery on a sick child. But all is not lost, as Alex hits on the bright idea of chartering a plane to Denver, so they can then catch the red-eye to New York and avert their respective – and let’s be honest, probably easily avoidable if they had been a bit more organised – crises. At least, that is, until their pilot suffers a massive stroke mid-flight, and the two are stranded together on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere.
Now I’m a sucker for disaster movies, and you’d think that with two hugely reliable, charismatic stars, an Oscar-nominated director in Hany Abu-Assad (‘Omar’, ‘Paradise Now’), and the much-touted “filmed entirely on location!!” gimmick, you’d be in store for something maybe a little more ‘Titanic’ than ‘Sharknado’. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. This is a misfire from top to bottom, with a director who seems woefully mismatched to the material, and a script that is so drenched in cliché that it leads you to wonder if the screenwriters had ever actually interacted with another human being.
This is all regrettably apparent in the film’s crash sequence, which, as morbid as it may sound, would normally be one of the big draw cards for a film like this. Instead, it’s that moment that I mentioned earlier, as I realised as I was watching it that everything about this film was marginally, consistently, hilariously, off. The camera glides around the tiny cabin of the plane in a long unbroken shot (‘Children of Men’, anyone?), as we see the mountains of British Columbia float past outside thanks to some supremely unconvincing green screen. Meanwhile, the two strangers try to get to know one another through hackneyed dialogue that even these actors can’t pass off as convincing, culminating in the neurosurgeon attempting to apologise for his Candy Crush habit with an “I need to occupy my amygdala”.
An iconic moment of screenwriting if ever I’ve seen one.
A script that is so drenched in cliché that it leads you to wonder if the screenwriters had ever actually interacted with another human being.
And then we get to the crash itself, in which the pilot dies (a strange cameo from Beau Bridges), the tail end of the plane is ripped off in mid-air, our two main characters are in mortal peril, and the same goes for one of the cutest dogs you’ll see on screen all year – and yet it all seems to pass by so serenely that it’s mostly akin to listening to someone under heavy medication describe a particularly unimpressive theme park ride. You might get the idea of excitement, but everything’s a bit too sedated.
From there, things don’t get much better. Sure, the minutiae of survival is mildly interesting, and Mandy Walker’s cinematography impressively captures the stunning locale, but nothing can get past the ear-bleedingly terrible script from writers Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe. Uninterested in "will they or won’t they survive", the script wastes no time in becoming "will they or won’t they fuck", turning these two apparently intelligent individuals into mildly horny Mills and Boone characters. At every opportunity, the writers beat the audience over the head with the beautiful symmetry of everything – she’s a risk-taker who follows her gut! He’s a neurosurgeon (with a mysterious past!!) who overthinks and won’t let go of control! When it gets to the point where “the heart is just a muscle” becomes a recurring line, you know you’ve stepped over into unintentionally hilarious territory.
Even if you watch the film as the laugh-riot that it is, it’s still a laboriously long experience. Its 111-minute running time may pale in comparison to the 163 minutes of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, but it definitely feels like the longer film. The main saving graces are the actors, as Winslet and Elba turn in reliably sturdy movie-star performances, or at least do the best they can under the circumstances. But the real star of the show is Dog, the pilot’s yellow lab, who steals every scene and is really just generally A Very Good Boy. Honestly, I was more invested in his survival than any schmaltzy, ill-conceived romance that may have been happening at the same time.