The Mountain Between Us: Alive and Kissing, by David Bax
Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us opens with the din of an airport terminal full of cranky would-be passengers gnashing their teeth about canceled flights in the face of an encroaching storm. It sounds chaotic enough to begin with but then, with a whoosh of automatic doors, we follow Alex (Kate Winslet) inside and the noise level rises suddenly and overwhelmingly. It’s a bracing and well-executed moment but it’s also a showy one. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but what the viewer can’t know in those first few seconds is how indicative it is of what’s to come. No, that realization won’t sink in until the look-at-me, single-take plane crash sequence, the story’s inciting incident. From there, The Mountain Between Us is like one of those angry, stranded travelers, shouting its demands at you. This movie is about as subtle as the rock formation in its title.
Alex is a photojournalist (one who charmingly though probably unrealistically still shoots on film) trying to get home to Denver from an assignment in rural Idaho in time for her wedding. Also in a rush is Ben (Idris Elba), a neurosurgeon who needs to get to any place from which he can book a flight to Baltimore in order to operate on a young patient. Together, they enlist the services of Walter (Beau Bridges), an old air jockey and war vet with a small plane and a friendly golden retriever. He’s sure he can get them where they need to go but, not too long after departure, Walter suffers a stroke, the plane crashes and Alex, Ben and the dog are on top of a mountain in the winter with no food and no methods of communication with the world.
Obviously, their situation is dire. But the screenplay (adapted by Chris Weitz from a novel) doesn’t seem to think that’s quite obvious enough. And so we get clumsy and unnecessary statements like, “We can live three weeks without food, three days without water and three minutes without air.” And, as if the need to stay alive isn’t conflict enough, we get engineered obstacles such as arguments that feel like screenwriter’s contrivances.
On the other hand, Weitz has always been associated with comedy and many of the most relatable and humanistic moments are the small jokes that Alex makes to keep her sanity. When Ben’s list of the few items of food remaining includes cookies, Alex asks, “What kind of cookies?” Later, upon waking up in their improvised shelter, she nonchalantly asks Ben if he wants a coffee. These dark jests are soft acknowledgments of their situation’s graveness and it’s at these times, more than any others, that their peril feels real and understandable.
Alex and Ben are, in a sense, archetypes. More accurately, they function as symbols, avatars of competing ideologies. Like Jack and Locke on Lost, another story of plane crash survivors, Ben and Alex represent, respectively, science and faith. Or, as The Mountain Between Us would have it, brain and heart. The dog, by the way, represents a third impulse, instinct, though that isn’t explored as deeply as it could be. What brings them together is hope, betokened here by a cough drop, the last bit of sustenance stored away in Alex’s backpack.
As evidenced by the last couple paragraphs of this review, there’s plenty of good stuff going on in The Mountain Between Us. Frustratingly, though, Abu-Assad doesn’t seem to realize which stuff that is, exactly. There’s so much compelling drama on offer in this narrative that it’s almost embarrassing when, in the final sections, the movie seems to think that Alex and Ben’s only worthwhile bond is a romantic one. Abandoning two people in the harshest of elements for weeks on end seems like a long way to go to get them to kiss. But, like I said, this movie isn’t exactly subtle