Idris Elba is a damned handsome man, and that's very close to the solitary reason it's worth paying any attention at all to The Mountain Between Us. The only other reason I could come up with was the film's terribly beautiful cinematography, courtesy of Mandy Walker, whom I would like to see get more attention than has mostly been the case. And part of the reason for that is because she keeps shooting movies like The Mountain Between Us; more-or-less crap films that are gorgeously lit and framed, but who's ever going to notice (see, for instance, 2016's stellar-looking, dramatically incompetent punchline, Jane Got a  Gun). In this case, Walker has threaded the not hugely impossible needle of making the Canadian Rockies look simultaneous Romantic and punishing; the steep crags and wide snowfields representing, on the one hand, the tumultuous feelings of the two leads, and representing, on the other hand, steep crags and wide snowfields that can kill you dead with a cold that claws its way right to your bones.

All of which is to say: here is a movie that is pleasant to look at. And I do consider myself pro-movies that are pleasant to look at, all things being equal, but take away Elba, Walker, and the Rockies, and I'm just not sure what The Mountain Between Us is left with. It's a hell of a fumbling script, adapted by J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz from a novel by Charles Martin with little sense of drama or stakes, which is a genuinely impressive feat for a movie about two people who spend several weeks fighting for their lives in the wintertime mountains, after a plane crash. See, what happens is that Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) needs to get married tomorrow afternoon in New York, and Ben (Elba), who stubbornly refuses to give us his surname for most of the film's running time, needs to perform brain surgery tomorrow morning in Baltimore, but they're both stuck in Idaho when a storm hits. Already, the film is starting the ring the bells of Extreme Contrivance, particularly since the calendar, if you pay any attention to dates at all, requires Ben to have been attending a medical conference on Christmas Day, which just doesn't seem likely at all.

But anyway, we've got two strangers in a hurry to get home, and the mere fact of inclement winter weather swooping down from the mountains like the hammer of God isn't going to be enough to dissuade them. So Alex, overhearing Ben's conundrum, offers a splendid idea: why not split the cost of chartering a little two-passenger plane to get as far as Denver? And so they meet up with the enormously scruffy Walter (Beau Bridges), exactly the kind of colorful sort you'd expect to be running a plane charter service in the middle of the mountains in Idaho. Alas, they've barely taken off before Walter just up and has a heart attack, sending the plane on a straight line right down to the mountains, God knows where between Boise and Denver, but certainly miles from the nearest town. Or cell phone tower.

Congrats to the film for its efficiency, I guess. To get as far into the plot as I've just described takes only slightly longer than it did for me to write it all out, which is kind of a good thing but more of a bad one. Ultimately, the main problem of The Mountain Between Us is that it has two very different movies in mind, and it doesn't know how to be both of them simultaneously. One of these is the harrowing story of how Alex and Ben survive, in a series of brutal little vignettes that proceed by with episodic heaviness: how shall they survive the cold? How shall they pee? How shall they deal with the film's conveniently solitary mountain lion? And so on, and so forth (incidentally, they deal with the mountain lion in a way that will be of no comfort at all to the cat lovers in the audience). And then the other movie is how Alex and Ben come to rely on each other, understanding that survival takes both of them, not simply one or the other, and how they open up to each other, and how they enter a "will they or won't they?" journey of eroticism in the unforgiving wilderness.

For the more expressly survivalist parts of the movie, which director Hany Abu-Assad handles much more effectively, the clipped, ruthlessly efficient approach is just fine. And it is very ruthlessly efficient, not just in the screenplay, but in the curt way Abu-Assad frames scenes - most notably in the aborted plane trip, which is handled in one single shot that pans 360 degrees around the cramped cockpit, moves from the backseat to the pilot's seat, and gives us a terribly sober-minded depiction of everything going to hell as quickly and efficiently as the rest of the storytelling.

But ultimately, The Mountain Between Us has designs on being a doomed romance, and that part just doesn't work. Alex and Ben remain stubbornly opaque, one-note figures - she's daring, he's cautious; she's open, he's crabby and self-contained - and the film even makes a specific plot point about how Ben remains largely unknowable for most of the running time. With a pair of rock-solid pros like Winslet and Elba, you'd expect that the characters would get at least some measure of depth and complexity thanks to the performances, but that's not really true at all. Both of them are very much content to take the easy way through the roles, inhabiting the characters at exactly the level the screenwriters present them; Elba is maybe a little better at the start, Winslet a bit better at the end, but in no case do the actors make more of the material than it demands.

What's most frustrating is that the film offers a solution, right in front of our eyes, that answers all of these complaints. And it comes at the end, so SPOILER ALERT: after they're rescued, the movie spends a good deal more time than I'd expected looking at their lives in the wake of their shared trauamatic experience, and it's probably the most honest, convincing story material in the picture: certainly, everything good about Alex is held till this point. So right there, that's a movie: apply that weirdly emotionless speed that pushes us through the opening act to the whole mountain-bound part of the film, and then devote a solid half of the movie or more to what happens to Alex and Ben back in civilian life. I'm sorry, you're not supposed to criticise a movie for what it isn't, but the annoying thing is that The Mountain Between Us was basically just one hearty rewrite away from being that different movie. Instead, the movie we got left with is a cursory thriller and unconvincing melodrama wedged together with nothing but some lovely landscape photography to give it any meaning at all.