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Kate Winslet and Idris Elba are unquestionably two of the brightest stars that the industry has. They are impressively consistent, and always compelling, and have demonstrated great range. To their credit, they live up to their reputations in director Hany Abu-Assad's The Mountain Between Us, and deliver performances expected of their caliber, however, they entirely carry what is otherwise a shockingly dull survival romance.
The material comes from the novel of the same name and has been adapted by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe -- starting off finding Alex (Kate Winslet) and Ben (Idris Elba) in crisis mode at an Idaho airport. The former, an adventurous photojournalist, is trying to get home in time for her wedding; and the latter, an introverted neurosurgeon, is trying to get to Baltimore in time for a life-saving surgery, but both are halted by cancelled flights. Recognizing their shared conundrum, they team up to get a charter plane that can get them past the storm, but things get truly disastrous when the pilot (Beau Bridges) has a stroke mid-flight and they crash high in the mountains.
Ben wakes to find Alex alive but unconscious and with a dangerously gashed leg, and things don't get much better when he ventures out of the fuselage to discover that they are not only high up, but that there is no sign of civilization in any direction. When Alex does finally wake up, the debate over the best way to survive begins -- with supplies running out and flares unable to get them any attention. It's eventually decided that they have no choice but to try and descend the mountain, the dead pilot's unnamed dog in tow, and endure the possible hazards they may encounter along the way.
Echoing the earlier point, The Mountain Between Us' utmost strength is its leads, and both Kate Winslet and Idris Elba are legitimately great in it. It's always impressive to see the biggest stars become invisible within a role, and even given what are really rote characters, they still make them spark. To the credit of both the performers and the production, their chemistry together is wonderful and has a legitimate emotional progression to it as the story unfolds and the need for survival draws Alex and Ben closer together. It's specifically the draw of Winslet and Elba that keeps you invested in the film, because there is very little else about it that works nearly as hard.
The Mountain Between Us posits itself genre-wise as a survival romance, but the film is definitely more invested in the second half of that label than the first. To put it bluntly, for a story that begins with a terrible, fatal plane crash, "peril" is barely part of the cinematic experience. The protagonists do sport some injuries from the accident, but through the bulk of the many-weeks-long story they look and act shockingly unaffected by the sub-zero weather conditions and minimal food rations. These are characters who should be gaunt and developing frostbite on their noses and cheeks, but it's as though the movie is afraid to let them become less pretty because it may make their budding romance less attractive.
For as many dangers as there are presented on the side of a snowy mountain, the film is also all but completely lacking in natural conflict -- with singular problems occasionally presenting themselves only to be overcome one scene later. With the exception of one scene late in the narrative where Ben puts his doctor skills to good use (which I won't spoil here), we never get to see any kind of creative problem solving, which is typically the lifeblood of survival stories. Normally you'd expect a struggle to find shelter or dangerous adventures scaling down cliffs, but in The Mountain Between Us there is always a cave or nice overhang around the corner, and you can always avoid the cliffs by the less perilous way around.
Weirdly not helping things is Hany Abu-Assad's direction and the cinematography. The production certainly deserves props for actually filming The Mountain Between Us on a real mountain and not making use of CGI, but it also feels all wrong. Once again tipping the scales in favor of the romance over survival story, the environment never feels daunting or dangerous (again, not helped by Kate Winslet and Idris Elba's unblemished good looks), and instead is painted to look majestic and beautiful. Ultimately it feels like it is never more than being one step away from being about a couple's fantastical vacation, with their friendly dog by their side frolicking through the snow.
The Mountain Between Us almost has a hypnotizing quality to it, with so many impressive parts operating within a machine that doesn't really doesn't function properly. If you can be bought and sold purely on the romance it may be worth your money, but know that the rest of it does not hold up well at all to scrutiny.