By Liam Lacey
On paper and in the previews, The Mountain Between Us looks both promising and slightly unorthodox. It’s an American plane-crash survival movie starring a pair of highly appealing English actors, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian-Dutch director with a couple of best foreign film Oscar nominations (Paradise Now, Omar). Plus, one of the two writers is Chris Weitz (About A Boy, Rogue One).
In practice? Not so good, and entirely conventional. Films, unlike airplanes, don’t come with black boxes to reveal what went wrong, but there are some clues. Things start out jauntily enough, in quasi rom-com mode, when adventurous photo-journalist Alex (Winslet) rushes to an Idaho airport departure gate to discover her flight to Denver has been cancelled because of a storm. She’s supposed to get married the next day.
She overhears neurosurgeon Ben (Elba), a Brit expat doctor who had a ticket on the same plane, complaining that he needs to be in an operating room in Baltimore the next day to save a boy’s life. Alex proposes they charter a small plane together. The plane takes off, Ben plays some Candy Crush on his phone and the two banter. Then the pilot (Beau Bridges) has a stroke and the plane goes down.
The Mountain Between Us pretty much peaks with its crash scene. The camera spins around the plane, then back to the cockpit where the pilot goes into a seizure, followed by a long gliding crash onto a snow-covered mountain ridge. The screen goes dark: Ben comes to with a wound on his side; Alex has a broken leg and a scratched face, though the pilot’s golden lab, at least, is unscathed. After that Abu-Assad seems to have given up trying to bring anything distinctive to what’s essentially a Lifetime movie.
The most important credit here, it turns out, is that of the original writer of the film, J. Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adeline) who previously adapted the Nicholas Sparks novel, The Best of Me, for the screen. The Mountain Between Us, based on a book by the Sparks-like Charles Martin, is essentially a Nicholas Sparks film with a more expensive cast. Prepare for an ordeal, secrets from the past, healing hearts, and kissy ending.
Although the mountain landscapes, shot in Alberta and British Columbia, are calendar-art pretty, neither the undisciplined script nor the direction provide a sense of location or the passage of time. After about an hour into the film, we learn that Alex and Ben have spent about three weeks climbing down the mountain, living mostly on snacks from the plane, although nobody, including the dog, seems to have lost a pound or grown a hair in the interval.
While Ben and Alex have a few episodic mishaps (a mountain lion, and a Titanic-evoking dunk in a frozen lake for Alex), there’s little suspense here. Instead, the focus is on dialogue: Ben’s scientific and tightly wound: “The heart is nothing but a muscle.” Also, he doesn’t like to talk about his wife for reasons anyone can guess. By contrast, Alex is emotional and impetuous and says challenging things like, “I don’t want to die up here because you’re too scared to take a risk.”
Does Ben rise to the challenge? Oh, yes, he does. So many questions… If Ben and Alex survive, can they recapture the intensity they experienced during their ordeal? Can the mountain between them (meaning their marriages) be ethically overcome?
In addition, I found myself wondering where the dog went in the long stretches when he wasn’t on screen. Also, why Kate Winslet’s head is almost as big as Idris Elba’s, though she’s much smaller than him. And mostly, what’s the statute of limitations on Elba and Winslet working together again on a film commensurate with their talent, because that’s a film I’d like to see.
The Mountain Between Us. Directed by Hany Abu-Assad, written by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe. Starring Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, and Beau Bridges. Opens wide October 6.