Getting stranded in the wilderness is a traumatic experience, and stories about nature’s brutal indifference to the welfare of human beings have been mined by Hollywood for plenty of high-minded drama over the years. Standouts in the genre include 1993’s Alive, a true story about an Argentinian soccer team who crash in the Andes; 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s 2010 James Franco-fest about a hiker whose arm gets pinned by a rock in the middle of nowhere; and Everest, a top-notch drama from 2015 about a doomed expedition to the summit of the tallest mountain on the planet.
None of those movies have made a romantic relationship between two survivors the main focus of the story, and after seeing The Mountain Between Us, the new disaster-romance film from director Hany Abu-Assad, based on a novel by Charles Martin, you’ll know exactly why that is.
The film starts off strong enough, as Ben (Idris Elba), a Baltimore-based English brain surgeon, and Alex (Kate Winslet), a world-traveling photojournalist, meet at the Salt Lake City airport, where both of their flights home have been canceled. Ben has to get back to Baltimore to perform an emergency surgery on a young boy, and Alex has to get home to Colorado to get married the next day. So the two strangers charter a small prop plane to get them over the Rockies and on their way home. But when the pilot, Walter (Beau Bridges), has a stroke in the middle of the flight, the plane goes down, leaving a bruised Ben and crippled Alex to fend for themselves, along with Walter’s yellow lab, known to the pair as “Dog” since Walter never divulged his name.
The crash itself is as tense as any on film, shot entirely from within the cabin of the plane. As Ben tries to help Walter, the mountains loom ever closer through the windows as the plane dives and banks, creating the same sort of feeling one gets when witnessing a car accident they have no control over stopping. But once Ben and Alex are stuck on the titular mountain, it’s all downhill – pun always intended.
Elba and Winslet – bearing nearly all of the weight of the rather predictable script – absolve themselves of blame, as each actor is precisely as charismatic and charming as we’ve come to expect. But in trying to merge the disaster and romance genres, the film simply doesn’t know which it wants to be most of the time, and ends up doing neither well. After the initial crash, there are few moments in which the lives of the two are convincingly threatened. Meanwhile, Elba somehow remains impeccably groomed even after several days of being without a razor or toothbrush. With that kind of self-cleaning action, how would anyone not fall in love?
There’s a flash of potential in the final scenes of the film, which deal with the aftermath of the couple’s trek and inevitable tryst. But even that gets watered down with platitudes and predictability. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be more likely to be wiping spittle from the corner of your mouth than tears from your eyes.