By Peter Debruge
An odd choice of American studio project from Israeli director — and two-time Oscar foreign-language nominee — Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”), “The Mountain Between Us” begins with a spectacular disaster, as a private plane crash-lands atop a snow-covered ridge in what’s known as the High Uintas Wilderness in northern Utah. It’s all downhill from there, literally, as Kate Winslet, Idris Elba and the dead pilot’s dog attempt to make their way back to civilization.
Between its beautiful stars and panoramic vistas, this gorgeous-looking Fox production offers plenty of scenery to ogle, but not much else for the brain to do while Winslet and Elba alternately bicker and bond in what amounts to a fairly routine wilderness trek — minus wolves, avalanches, frostbite or any of the challenges that typically make such things interesting. Instead, true to the eminently skimmable novel on which it’s based (Charles Martin writes like a child. In sentences without subjects. Or verbs.), the central questions are, first, whether the pair will survive, and then, more bizarrely, whether the experience will forge them into a romantic couple.
To that, you could add: Will you cry? Maybe. Director Abu-Assad and screenwriters Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe certainly want to flush those tears right outta your ducts, although they don’t seem to understand — or maybe they just aren’t especially interested in — the themes that Martin was attempting to explore when he wrote the book, which focuses more on how difficult it can be to live up to the traditional ideals of love and marriage.
Whereas the book is told from the POV of Elba’s character, a neurosurgeon named Ben who needs to get to Denver to perform an urgent surgery, the movie slightly favors Winslet, who’s rushing to her wedding, which is scheduled for the following day. Not like anyone will object, but she’s a lot different from the character Martin describes in the book, a columnist for women’s magazines named Ashley: “Think Winona Ryder in ‘Girl, Interrupted.’ Or Julia Ormond in Harrison Ford’s remake of ‘Sabrina,’” he writes. “Or Kate Winslet, when Margot Robbie and Rosamund Pike drop out of the project,” he might have added.
Clearly, there were many other options of how the central couple might have looked. Here, Winslet’s character has been rechristened and reconceived as Alex, a headstrong photojournalist, and the one to charter the plane into the storm. That sounds like a bad idea by any measure, but as it turns out, the storm isn’t a problem. It’s their pilot (Beau Bridges) that Ben and Alex ought to be worried about. In one virtuoso shot, Abu-Assad moves fore and aft in the tiny plane, rotating 180 degrees a couple times before taking his place in the cockpit, from which things go handheld as the pilot’s heart gives out, the tail rips off and the plane begins its terrifying descent.
When they come to, Alex’s leg is fractured and Ben has a nasty wound on his side that looks like internal bleeding. The dog is OK. Repeat, the dog is OK. Alex invokes the “Rule of Three”: People can survive three days without water, three hours without shelter and three minutes without air. But here’s another rule, this one for screenwriters: Give the audience some sense of the journey’s scope. How long do the characters survive? No clue. How far must they walk to the nearest sign of civilization? No idea.
In the book, the answers are more than four weeks and 50 miles, though the filmmakers have a bigger challenge with another: Will they fall in love? They’re a man and a woman in a movie with no other actors for 90% of its running time, so you do the math. (If it were just Ben and the dog, the outcome might be a bit more mysterious.) Eventually, Ben and Alex realize their only chance of staying alive is sticking together. But what happens after?
Script shortcomings aside, Winslet and Elba make a reasonably good couple. He’s far manlier than practically any of the other male stars working today, but etched with a sensitive side that comes out when it’s finally revealed why he seems less concerned about his wife than she does her fiancé. And Winslet can be tough: After all, she survived the sinking of the Titanic, so it’ll take more than plunging through the surface of a frozen to stop her here. If only they took the opportunity of all this time together getting to know one another — or revealing how such a shared trauma can really impact human beings.
As icy plane crashes go, this one pales next to “Alive” or “The Grey,” while in terms of character insight, it’s got nothing on Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet” from a few years back. Whereas “The Mountain Between Us” was adapted from 300-odd semi-literate pages of three- and four-word sentences (Wilson’s prose makes Dan Brown sound like David Foster Wallace), Loktev’s film found more depth in a short story called “Expensive Trips Nowhere.” Incidentally, that would have been a perfect title for a movie in which neither the subzero temperature nor the romantic heat penetrates more than skin deep.