One day soon we might run out of extreme sports subjects about which to make documentaries, but that day is not yet upon us, so into the pipeline with a heady swoosh! rushes First Descent, a gorgeously photographed snowboarding solicitation. A direct and very derivative descendant of modern genre forebear Dogtown and Z-Boys, the movie traces the story of snowboarding from its roots as a backyard hobby to its current status as a billion-dollar recreation and licensing industry, as well as the staple of the hugely popular, ESPN-broadcast X-Games.
More of a suitably worshipful primer-level celebration than an enduring dissertation, the divertingly entertaining First Descent tracks a motley crew, ranging in age from 18 to 40, of top current freestyle snowboarders and aging legends as they chuck endorsement deals and perfectly machine-carved half-pipes to tackle the foreboding thrills of the Alaskan wilderness.
Lacking a natural arc other than a chronological one (which is apparently deemed too boring for the Mountain Dew generation), First Descent jumps around, mixing together three disparate storytelling strands. The first is a loose history of the sport, while the second is comprised of actual expedition footage from the aforementioned group as they hit the tucked away Chugach Mountain range of Valdez (no drunken Exxon captains in sight, thankfully). The third sketches the personal histories of its participants, which includes impassive 30-year-old godhead Terje Haakonsen, hot teen up-and-comers Shaun White and Hannah Teter, and father figures Shawn Farmer and Nick Perata, the latter of whom opines that it “would really bum [him] out if someone died or got hurt” on the trip, because he views it as being his backyard.
That the footage captured here is breathtaking to laymen is a given. The imponderables of the great outdoors, though, create a whole new set of challenges that it’s interesting to see pro-level snowboarders grapple with, particularly neophytes Teter and White — the latter of whom just scored gold at the Turino Winter Olympics. Still, First Descent can’t compete — and doesn’t try, really — with the psychological self-examination of the skateboarding doc Dogtown and Z-Boys, which was scripted by ground-zero participant Stacey Peralta and had the feel of a wised narcissist coming to terms with his highlight-reel past. It instead pours its resources into the production side of things, capturing the sheer visceral thrill of its sport with ace cinematography from Scott Duncan, Matt Goodman, Mark Hyrma (responsible for some astonishing aerial work) and others.
The relatively sparse narration may be at times overblown (vague, chest-thumping talk of “fighting the establishment” and “battling for souls” and what not), but its interviewees are personable to the man, and you enjoy their company even if co-directors Kevin Harrison and Kemp Curley don’t truly plumb the common threads of their attraction to snowboarding. Such enlightenment is generally left to anecdotal deduction. There’s also a telling glimpse of the fiery rebel spirit of the pursuit when the film details how, in its Olympic debut at the 1998 games in Nagano, the gold medal winner was almost stripped of his decoration for (shock) testing positive for marijuana, and a fellow ‘boarder in turn says he wouldn’t have it any other way for snowboarding’s introduction to the world at large.
The movie works best if one is able to sublimate the desire for academic illumination and instead get off on the vicarious pop kick — including a great collection of vintage clips and tracking handheld material that puts you there on the slopes — of massive plumes of white stuff and contortionist feats of airborne derring-do. It presents a history of snowboarding, but doesn’t ask the important questions of why that in turn inform a greater understanding and appreciation of the sport. To this end, First Descent doesn’t break the new ground its allusive title might like to claim — it’s more ornamental gospel to the unruly choir — but it still gives you slight entr¿e to a different world.
A single disc DVD presented in an Amray case with additional safety snaps,
First Descent‘s supplemental features include a messy clutch of
extraneous material that wins points for its presence but a few
demerits for its formlessness. The movie itself, though, is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the picture — so integral to the feeling and thus success of the movie — is clear, with no trace of artifact or grain, and no compression problems. Given that the film features so many blindingly bright whites, one might suppose there’s a chance of oversaturation, but that’s not the case. A solid English Dolby digital 5.1 track anchors the audio presentation; not only is dialogue ably captured, but the track also impressively highlights the subtle sounds of “cut” snow as White, Haakonsen and others shred the slopes. Some great music by ex-Devo and current Rugrats and Rushmore maestro Mark Mothersbaugh is also put to good use, further engaging you in the proceedings. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French.
As for the bonus material, first up is “AK and Beyond,” a 21-minute, loose-limbed making-of featurette that gives voice to many of the various cameramen working on the project. Of a similar vein is the five-and-a-half-minute “Top of the World,” in which aerial DP Mark Hryma and others detail the gyro-stabilized, 600-pound, front-mounted camera used to capture B-roll footage and topographical establishing shots. This would be more interesting with a little bit more of a divorced perspective, in which perhaps artistic pre-planning was discussed. As is, it’s just more collected footage from the shoot, loosely sorted. The same holds true for four additional minutes of extended snowboarding action (honestly, who hasn’t had their free-form fill after the 110-minute feature?) and two deleted scenes, one of which is more anecdotal and the other of which details the inclement weather that initially postpones one run. Additionally, a five-minute, music-set photo gallery, “A Thousand Words,” rounds things out.
Overall, First Descent isn’t the movie that’s necessarily going to open many older minds to snowboarding, but it is a wonder to behold visually, and those who’ve dabbled in the field — either avocationally or more seriously — will definitely spark to the sights of these legends challenging some of the most dangerous mountain runs in the world. If, for some reason, you want to see the review as originally published and archived at IGN, click here. Though I don’t believe they paid me for it, so why would you do that? Instead, just laugh silently to yourself, and if you’re interested in purchasing the film via Amazon, click here. B- (Movie) C+ (Disc)