Film Review: The Mountain Between Us

by Carrie Kahn on October 6, 2017

Kate, Idris, and a dog battle the elements: Who will survive!?      

Strangers Alex (Kate Winslet) and Ben (Idris Elba) must stick together to survive a plane crash in the Rocky Mountains in heart of winter.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good old fashioned, human-versus-the-elements survival story; 127 Hours is one of my all-time favorite films, and Everest, Into the Wild, and even Alive all captured my imagination and left me pondering the strength of my own survival instinct long after the credits rolled. Director Hany Abu-Assad’s new film The Mountain Between Us isn’t the best of this genre by a long shot, but it’s a decent enough addition to the canon, and, if the genre’s one you enjoy, you can easily add this picture to your viewing queue and feel okay about doing so.

Based on Charles Martin’s 2011 novel, The Mountain Between Us finds Kate Winslet’s photojournalist Alex and Idris Elba’s neurosurgeon Ben in a similar predicament; stranded at the Boise airport because of cancelled flights, the two strangers each need to get back to the east coast ASAP for various reasons. She’s getting married, and he’s got a life saving surgery to perform (the viewer, of course, can decide which of these is the more worthy reason for finding slapdash last minute transit).

Pairing up, they manage to find said last minute transit in the form of charter plane pilot Walter (Beau Bridges). He’s a former Vietnam pilot who naturally isn’t afraid to fly a tiny plane into an impending storm in late December over the Rocky Mountains, even though, you know, maybe that’s not the world’s best idea. Walter’s confidence indeed proves no match for his heart, which gives out halfway through the flight, leaving the plane to plummet to the snow-covered mountains below. Walter doesn’t make it, but needless to say, our heroes do, as does Walter’s resilient dog, Dog (so named by Alex and Ben, since they never learned the pooch’s name).

Mandy Walker’s breathtaking cinematography is a highlight of the film.

On the plus side, this introductory set-up is mercifully short, and Abu-Assad wastes no time bringing us immediately to the aftermath of the crash, where the film’s central conflict quickly emerges. Alex, feeling guilty, suspects Ben blames her for their plight, since she’s the one who convinced him to take the charter flight. Adding fuel to that already charged undercurrent, the two also share a fundamental difference regarding their best survival tactic. Ben, who is more measured and reticent (he’s a brain surgeon after all) wants to stay put near the crash site and wait for search and rescue to find them; Alex, fiery and spontaneous, thinks staying on the move and trying to hike out is the way to go.

And thus Abu-Assad and writers J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz (Rogue One) promptly and efficiently engage their audience from the outset. The pleasures of watching a survival story such as this come from identifying and empathizing with the characters on screen, and thinking, What would I do? Who do I agree with? Would I survive? And, on top of that, of course we naturally develop a rooting interest in both characters despite their flaws (He’s moody and withdrawn! She’s nosy and quick to anger!), and our next question becomes: which of the pair will survive? Since Winslet’s Rose made it through Titanic, another survival movie staple, is Elba’s Ben the stand in for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack now? And what about that remarkably resilient dog!?

Charter pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) assures his passengers he can fly them safely through a winter storm. Hmmm…

Such questions, along with the absolutely stunning cinematography by Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures), keep us thoroughly engrossed, even as the film takes a somewhat predictable and hokey turn at its end. The scenes on the mountain, in which our heroes alternate between sparring and working together, are by far the best in the movie, and, luckily, account for the majority of the film. It’s also only a slight spoiler to reveal that the picture contains one of the most realistically filmed and electric sex scenes ever put on screen. If we want to use Titanic for comparison again, let’s just say that whereas many thought DiCaprio and Winslet were woefully mismatched there, Winslet more than makes up for that lack of sizzle with the visceral and believable chemistry she shares with Elba, who, after you witness him here, will no doubt will banish the boyish DiCaprio from your mind forever.

The Mountain Between Us doesn’t break any new ground in the survival movie inventory, but it’s a solid addition, and the phrase “date movie” was tailor made for it. A film that will please both romantics and adventure buffs alike, it’s a respectable choice for your weekend cinema outing. That said, however, if you wait just a few more weeks, a far better lost-in-the-snowy-wilderness film will be opening soon: Walking Out has been playing film festivals to rave reviews, and, ultimately, is the superior film. But Ben and Alex should hold you over in the meantime.


The Mountain Between Us opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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