The overarching plotting of The Mountain Between Us feels like one of those "If you were trapped on a desert island and could bring only three things with you..." questions where the answers are (naturally): 1. Your phone. 2. Your dog. 3. Idris Elba.
Except, here, the island is a remote, snow-covered mountainside, the phone has no reception and the dog belongs to the pilot, who had a stroke mid-flight and died. Idris Elba is still there though.
Adapted from a novel by Charles Martin, the movie follows neurosurgeon Ben (Elba) and photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet), strangers booked on the same canceled flight out of Idaho. Both have reasons they need to get to Denver that night to catch a connecting flight to New York City -- he is performing an emergency surgery, she's getting married -- so they decide to charter a dinky aircraft. How Alex and Ben decide that's their most reasonable solution -- what options do you rule out before landing on chartered plane? -- is glossed over, because otherwise there isn't a movie! So, before long, we're in the air!
And then we're tumbling down. The Mountain Between Us hits the ground (err...mountain?) running, as we've not gotten much sense of who these people are and what the hell is happening before their plane crashes exactly 10 minutes in. It's an immediate, claustrophobic sequence, the camera swooping around the small aircraft to capture various reactions, then holding on Alex and Ben as the plane begins to spiral downward. The crash is bracing, disorienting, as you find yourself stuck inside the plane with them. With no exterior shots to provide a sense of space, it plays like a first-person simulator ride, minus the rocking seat.
That is perhaps the closest scene to what viewers are expecting from this movie, with its trailer full of so much ominous, swelling music and Inception brawmps. The actual movie is decidedly slower paced, with the few real thrills -- precarious footing alongside a cliff, a mountain lion -- piecemealed together in that preview to make this seem like something of an action-adventure movie or harrowing tale of survival. It never achieves harrowing, really -- though, god, does everything that happens to them suck.
Instead, The Mountain Between Us leans heavily into the potential romance between Alex and Ben. Alex is the everywoman, carefree but not immaturely so, smart, inquisitive. When the tail end of the plane is ripped off in the crash, Alex cries out, "The dog! The dog!" and grabs hold of his collar. She is you. Ben is prickly and British and a handsome doctor, the rom-com archetype you'd want to fall for. (No disrespect to Alex's fiancé in wait.) He relies on logic, she follows her intuition. He is brains, she's heart. They are an odd couple with a mountain between them (and many, many mountains between them and civilization).
As Alex and Ben, Winslet and Elba have an easy, amiable chemistry, the kind that tends to lead to something more in movies like this. (I can't be the only one who, after seeing the trailer, assumed they were going to do it on that mountain.) It starts as a shared dry humor and mutual appreciation of each other's banter and survival skills; however, it's a shame that, in order to see his MacGyvering, she must play the damsel in distress a few times too many. (To her credit, Winslet does play comatose very well, and the convincingness with which she can "wake up" onscreen is why she's an Oscar-winning actress.)
Which tees up another misconception I should clear up: The Mountain Between Us is not an Oscar pic, per se, as you may have been led to believe by its stars and director (Hany Abu-Assad, who helmed the Academy Award-nominated Omar) and release date (peak Oscar-bait season, following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year). In viewing, it doesn't have that air of prestige, and without delving too terribly deeply into these two characters, it lacks the emotional weight of a Wild or 127 Hours. Which isn't meant as a knock against any of the performances -- which, again, are great! Or the movie, which maybe never had aspirations to collect any little golden men -- that's maybe what I'm just putting on it. And once you get over that, it's a fun fantasy to indulge.
There is a stretch towards the end that I found moving and interesting in -- and here I'll attempt to be a little vague -- a Room-like way. But that's only a brief flash before a debatably corny but definitely more conventional ending. And then, as a Zayn and Sia song starts to play, you realize, Oh! This is a rom-com! The Mountain Between Us is a rom-com, as much as the light laughs throughout and frequent cutaways to the dog for reaction shots provide the comedy, with a mild survival saga dropped in the middle. (Is it surprising, then, to learn the two screenwriters credited on this are Rogue One's Chris Weitz and The Age of Adaline's J. Mills Goodloe?)
It's also, for the record, a movie that also treats its dog well.