"The Mountain Between Us" is an uneasy hybrid of a film, and its successes and disappointments show the benefits and drawbacks of hitching your film to a pair of stars.
We're not talking about just any stars here, this is the gifted Oscar winner Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, magnetic and compelling from HBO's landmark "The Wire" to today.
More than that, the project is taken from a bestselling novel by Charles Martin and is directed by Hany Abu-Assad, two of whose films, the exceptional "Paradise Now" and "Omar," were Oscar nominees for foreign language film.
Though "The Mountain Between Us" is being sold as a survival film, and in fact acts like that's what it is for most of its length, it's actually a classic star vehicle romance. The different demands of both genres is where this film begins to get into trouble.
Very loosely adapted by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe from Martin's novel (for reasons unknown, they've even changed the names of both characters), "Mountain" opens at a small airport in Idaho where an unlikely couple meet when a flight is canceled.
Alex Martin (Winslet) is an intrepid photojournalist, energetic and entrepreneurial, who is desperate to get back East as soon as possible or else she will miss her own wedding.
Ben Bass (Elba), London-born but now based in Baltimore, is a top neurosurgeon who needs to get home to perform emergency brain surgery on a small child.
With both eager to get out, Martin, ever resourceful, comes up with the idea of chartering a small plane to take them to Denver to make their connections.
Happy to oblige is Walter (Beau Bridges), the owner-operator of Blue Line charter, the kind of genial, folksy guy who takes his dog with him on the small Piper aircraft.
Needless to say, things do not go well on that plane.
In a traumatic five-minute scene somehow filmed in one shot (Mandy Walker was the cinematographer), the plane goes down and only Martin, Bass and the dog survive.
Worse yet, the plane has crashed in the snowy vastness of Utah's, uninhabited Uinta Mountain wilderness, and both Martin and Bass sustain injuries that hamper their mobility.
Not surprisingly, these two have completely opposite ways of dealing with their predicament. The cautious neurosurgeon thinks they should stick close to the plane because "someone is definitely coming to get us," while the action-oriented journalist wants to get moving despite being theoretically hampered by a broken leg.
Eventually movement happens, and it gives away nothing to say that all manner of close calls befall them both individually and as a team. Whether we actually worry about their fate in the wilderness, however, is an entirely different question.
For one thing, even though "The Mountain Between Us" was actually shot in frigid conditions above the tree line in remote British Columbia, it doesn't get the benefit of its difficulty. As viewers, we've become so accustomed to seeing high levels of trickery that reality doesn't register the way it should in this film.
Also, major stars are not ideal for survival stories because it’s hard to image that anything untoward will happen to their characters, especially in a film with a weakness for dog reaction shots.
(For those in the market for a convincing survival story, "Walking Out," starring Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins opening next week, is your best bet.)
But "The Mountain Between Us" also has designs on being a romance, and in this area having Winslet and Elba in the parts completely pays off. Even though this particular story couldn't be more contrived, big stars have been making us invest in far-fetched emotional connections for as long as movies have been in existence. We may not believe these two can be in jeopardy, but they are quite good at being in love.
‘The Mountain Between Us’
Rating: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In general release