I’ve always been a sucker for filmed stories about humans vs. nature. And even though I’m fully aware that nature, by all rights, should win every time, if a human comes out of a fight like that alive, it’s usually because nature lets them win. I’m not so much talking about movies involving insane weather phenomena; I’m looking at films that feature more believable conflicts, such as this week’s The Mountain Between Us, where people are dropped into an environment in which it is virtually impossible to survive, and they still attempt to get out against all the odds. (Full disclosure: there’s another, better example of this coming out this week in some places called Walking Out, starring Matt Bomer.)
This film begins with a pair of strangers that share a common dilemma: they are stranded in an airport, desperate to get where they are going without having to wait with the masses. Photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) and surgeon Ben (Idris Elba) manage to find a small charter plane (flown by a crusty old pilot played by Beau Bridges) to take them to a city where they can get the flights they need to get home.
But the plane goes down in the middle of a snow-covered mountain range, and they are stranded with little hope of being rescued, since the pilot didn’t file a flight plan and the emergency beacon in the tail of the plane was smashed in the crash. With Alex’s leg severely injured and Ben, the sensible one, less inclined to leave the wreckage, the first struggle is with each other to figure out whether to risk walking into the unknown or staying and hoping for the best. And oh yeah, they have to take care of the pilot’s dog as well, who I grew to hate with a passion by the end of the film.
Much like the ill-fated flight that opens the film, The Mountain Between Us starts strong, cruises along at a serviceable altitude, and then comes crashing down in the end. The survivalist scenarios are terrific, and the way this pair looks out for each other, playing to their strengths and knowledge of biology and tactics for staying warm and safe. The first time he leaves her for an extended period to get a better view and possibly a cell phone signal, she is attacked by a cougar that manages to get into their nicely fortified and insulated plane remnants.
As films like this often do, we witness Alex and Ben get to know each other a bit better and discover what makes them tick. She’s on her way to get married; he’s got an emergency surgery; both miss their appointments. What I wasn’t anticipating was this movie slowly transforming into a type of love story. I get that there’s no way two people could go through this experience and not bond to some degree, but this story takes it a lot further. Thus, the first time they experience anything resembling creature comforts during their ordeal, they find an abandoned and rundown cabin in the woods with an actual bed and a fireplace…and what else are they supposed to do except…snuggle?
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad (The Idol; Omar) and written by J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz (adapting Charles Martin’s novel), The Mountain Between Us makes a case that these two strong-willed but slightly damaged people bring out a strength in each other that might actually be the beginnings of love. I don’t want to ruin anything about how the film ends or who lives or dies, but the final 15 minutes or so of this movie are positively cringe-worthy, so much so that it almost erases any goodwill it may have earned in the preceding 90 minutes. I could even be convinced that this ending might have worked in book form, but the screen translation is so bad, I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel insulted.
There are few actors as purely charismatic or attractive as Winslet and Elba; that’s just a fact. And as much as that shouldn’t matter in the film like this, one that presents them in less-than-flattering circumstances, we almost can’t help that it does. It also helps that they are two extraordinarily fine actors who sell their struggle to such a degree that you’ll likely scream at the screen at every setback they face.
But damn that ending is appallingly bad. If I believed in walking out of a movie before the ending (and I don’t), I’d say quietly exit the theater once you know how the action in the mountains plays out. But you’ll likely stick around until the credits roll, and then, you’re on your own, fellow travelers.