The Mountain Between Us is all about pragmatic decisions. Rather than resort to embellishing a survival drama, it simply goes about its business, trying to put the audience in the shoes of two strangers who must figure out how to find their way back to civilization after a plane crash. It even goes so far as to explain why they didn’t call anyone before their plane took off, so literally no one knows where they are. It makes them the only two people in the world, and in that scenario, it’s really only a matter of time before you fall in love with a dreamy doctor played by Idris Elba. All of the will-they, won’t-they tension kind of goes out the window when that guy is your male lead, and like every decision made by the characters, it’s the perfectly logical one.
Alex (Kate Winslet) is a photojournalist who needs to fly home ASAP because her wedding is tomorrow*; Ben (Elba) is a neurosurgeon who needs to fly home ASAP because he has a surgery he needs to perform the following morning. With the airport basically shut down due to weather, Alex overhears Ben’s predicament and offers a way to help. They make their way to a private carrier who offers to get them to another airport where they can catch their flights. When the pilot (Beau Bridges) suffers a stroke and the plane crashes, Ben, Alex, and the pilot’s dog are the only survivors. Initially staying put due to Alex’s broken leg and the hope that they’ll be found, the pair eventually realizes they must make their way down the mountain and find civilization if they’re to have any hope of being rescued.
Rather than launch into the romance between Alex, who is about to get married, and Ben, who is clearly reluctant to talk about his wife for some ominous reason, director Hany Abu-Assad puts more emphasis getting his characters situated in their environment, showing the isolation of the pair with gorgeous shots of the mountains. Although Alex and Ben are clearly in survival mode and we don’t envy their circumstances, the way Abu-Assad captures the scenery makes it a bit of a stretch to say they’re “roughing it” when everything looks so stunning. The characters are never pelted with a blizzard and we never see fingers about to rot off from frostbite. Alex even points out that water will never be a problem because they can just melt the snow. It’s a survival story, but with Ben as a doctor, it’s never one where you feel the characters are in any immediate danger.
That’s not to say that The Mountain Between Us lacks stakes, but rather those stakes come from the relationship between Ben and Alex and how much they can open up to each other. On the one hand, we know they’re not going to separate, but they each have different, reasonable approaches to survival. Alex thinks they need to get moving, while Ben thinks they should stay put. Once they start moving, they have new obstacles to face. And then there’s the question of whether or not they’ll end up falling for each other.
Except that’s really not that much of a question. It’s Idris Elba. I’m a straight dude who’s getting married in a few weeks, and even I was like, “He’s a doctor, he’s got the charm of Idris Elba, and he’s trying to save her life. How are they not making out yet?” I’m not saying that Alex should leave her fiancée after only a few weeks of being stranded on a mountain with Ben, but I understand.
If you take The Mountain Between Us more as a romance than a survival drama, it works much better because it’s not really interested in the hard choices and narrow escapes that a survival film requires. After all, in a movie with only two people (and a dog), it’s not like one of them is going to die halfway through from hypothermia. It’s all about the relationship, and when Idris Elba plays one-half of that relationship, it’s pretty easy to get on board.
*Out of all the elements of this movie, this one strained credulity the most. People tend not to fly when they’ve got their own wedding scheduled for the following day.