"The Way Back" represents an exquisite example of style over substance, of vast visuals dwarfing the characters and nearly swallowing the story whole.
Veteran Australian director Peter Weir, a six-time Oscar nominee ("Witness," ''The Truman Show"), has crafted an old-fashioned historical epic, inspired by the true story of a group of prisoners who escaped a 1940 Soviet labor camp and trudged thousands of miles across unforgiving terrain to their freedom. Not all of them made it, which we might have guessed on our own, but Weir — who co-wrote the screenplay with Keith Clarke, based on Slavomir Rawicz's book "The Long Walk" — informs us with a title card at the start that three men would walk out of the Himalayas at the end of this arduous journey.
The result: Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the film loses some of its tension because we pretty much know the outcome, leaving us only to wonder who will live and who will die, as if we're watching an episode of "Survivor: Siberian Gulag."
And it is serious — or at least, it should be. Weir alternates between vivid, convincing images of the harsh surroundings — sweepingly shot on location in Bulgaria, Morocco and India — and detailed close-ups of the toll this trip has taken on the characters' faces, their bodies, and most especially their feet.
But except for Ed Harris as a mysterious American, Jim Sturgess as an idealistic Polish officer and Colin Farrell as an over-the-top Russian thug, the remaining characters are essentially interchangeable. Even though the film feels overlong, insufficient time was spent fleshing out these people to make them, and the threats to their lives, seem pressing and real.
That only emphasizes the film's episodic, almost video game-like structure: Now they're in a blizzard, now they're in the forest, now they're trekking through rocky terrain, now they're slogging across sand. Survive one level and then it's onto the next, and the next. The tension should be unbearable; instead, "The Way Back" feels like exactly what it is: a long, slow march toward death.
Saoirse Ronan livens things up as a young Polish woman traveling alone who hooks up with the group about halfway through — even though they're divided over whether to allow her to join them. Not only is she spirited and friendly, which helps draw out some of their back stories, but she also has handy-dandy items like soap, which they desperately need. Ronan's scenes with Harris, in which they develop a sort of father-daughter relationship, are some of the most satisfying; despite the seemingly insurmountable conditions, she maintains an almost ethereal quality, in stark contrast to his pragmatism.
The moments in which they bond make you wish there were more like them, and they come too late.
"The Way Back," a Newmarket Films release, is rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language. Running time: 133 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.