The poster for the wilderness-survival saga The Mountain Between Us poses the question, “What if your life depended on a stranger?” My answer is that it would depend on the stranger. If it were Rob Schneider, I’d throw myself off a cliff before the wolves could get me. Idris Elba with a medical degree, I’d like my chances.
He plays Ben Bass, a British neurosurgeon who, even with cracked ribs, effortlessly braces and ices broken limbs, stitches wounds, and devises a homemade saline drip for treating dehydration. He’s so utterly gorgeous that it’s hard for the audience to pay full attention to the crisis at hand: two people thousands of feet above sea level in subzero temperatures with little food and no one who knows even their approximate location because the pilot of their small plane filed no flight plan before having a heart attack at the controls. That there’s a situation.
I should have mentioned that Kate Winslet is the other stranger on whom one’s life might depend and, despite protracted periods of unconsciousness, she’s no slouch when it comes to survival. I read Charles Martin’s novel on which the movie is based so you don’t have to, and it was interesting to see what changes the screenwriters (J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz) made to convert a male-savior fantasy into one more in tune with 2017 female expectations. Winslet’s character, Alex, is now a crusading photojournalist, and while she does require a lot of saving, she gets to save Ben, too, and even square off alone against a hungry mountain lion.
Alex and Ben quarrel more than in the book, which means more interesting drama but also more instances in which Alex looks like an idiot. Ben, hoping for imminent rescue, wants to stay in the surviving piece of the plane at the top of a ridge with its crackling fire and supply of mountain-lion kebabs. Alex believes that — despite her broken leg — they’d have a better chance tromping over 12-foot drifts astride vertiginous drop-offs hoping to stumble on the odd cave or ski resort or maybe get one bar on Ben’s phone. After Ben reams her out for getting him into this mess, she takes off on her own in a huff and goes about a minute and a huff before looking like she knows it’s a terrible idea. But she survived the Titanic, damn it. She won’t turn back.
It’s said you have a choice at a movie like The Mountain Between Us: Laugh at it or go with it. I don’t see those two things as mutually exclusive. I laughed at it and enjoyed the hell out of it. Survival sagas that aren’t overloaded with existentialist baggage can be a treat, even with all their absurdities in plain view, and this one has two beautiful actors who gaze longingly at each other while subtext swirls around them like falling snow. Alex had to charter a plane in the face of an oncoming storm to get to Denver in time for her wedding. Ben — who listens to the same voice message from his wife over and over — is more circumspect about his home life, even after Alex gives him the old we-might-die-together-you-might-as-well-tell-me-about-your-wife speech. Do they bone? Ask yourself this: Would you? One nice thing about a movie set mainly in bright, blinding snow is that you can look around the theater and see the shining faces of people who are really into the fantasy.
The Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad, is a long way, literally and figuratively, from the gritty moral dilemmas of Paradise Now and Omar. Aided by cinematographer Mandy Walker, he does a tasteful, bystander’s job. The movie looks authentic until the couple wanders into a cave with a veritable sea of too-picturesque stalactites. I don’t begrudge that touch of movie magic, though. It’s not like your plane would ever go down with Idris Elba and Kate Winslet anyway. I forgot to mention there’s a dog who belonged to the dead pilot. That means always-entertaining dog reaction shots. Plus the pooch gets to be a savior, too.
The denouement of The Mountain Between Us is long and clunky and I wouldn’t lose a minute of it. See it while the folks next door at Blade Runner 2049 are suffering (whether they admit it or not) through two hours and 43 minutes of dystopian angst. You’ll get the better deal.