"First Descent: The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution" profiles and aggressively sells the relatively new sport of freestyle snowboarding, borrowing moves from Imax adventure films and the Bruce Brown tradition of surfing docs. Pic displays filmmakers' love of snowboarding, but suffers from an unjustifiably long running time, considerable repetition and a generally awkward structure.
“First Descent: The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution” profiles and aggressively sells the relatively new sport of freestyle snowboarding, borrowing moves from Imax adventure films and the Bruce Brown tradition of surfing docs. Pic displays filmmakers Kevin Harrison’s and Kemp Curley’s love of snowboarding, but suffers from an unjustifiably long running time, considerable repetition and a generally awkward structure. Fans will pile in during the opening frame for the sport’s first mainstream movie, but vid is where this one will score style points.
Alaska is the mecca of snowboarders, and it’s where one of the sport’s pioneers, Nick Perata, invites a combo of legends and current stars to test their mettle in two weeks’ worth of backcountry freeriding in the precipitous Chugach Mountains near Valdez. Participants include 40-year-old former wild man Shawn Farmer, 30-year-old Norwegian master Terje Haakonsen and 18-year-old whippersnappers Shaun White and Hannah Teter, later joined by another hot star, Travis Rice.
Between the days on the mountains, pic folds in mini-profiles of Farmer, Haakonsen, White and Teter, and further layers the story with chapters on the sport’s history, starting with its crude beginnings on backyard slopes, with competitors racing and jumping on a single board, rather than skiing’s standard two boards. But the pic’s historical sections lack the thrilling, visceral sense of the action itself and tend to slow the film down.
This fundamental difference in boards, plus a wide generational divide, gave snowboarding its needed rebel image against that of the conservative skiing establishment in the 1970s, and the pic helpfully includes a few amusing archival clips of this battle of cultures.
As history, though, “First Descent” barely draws the line to the sport’s real birth in freestyle skateboarding, as memorialized in Stacy Peralta’s far superior docu “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”Although snowboarding’s rocky development — including a mini-scandal during its first year as an Olympic event — is interesting in brief doses, its expansion into corporate sponsorship is a familiar replay of other sports that went from the margins to the mainstream.
Far more compelling is the action on the Chugach Mountains; when Perata’s guests fly by helicopter to a nearby peak, it’s fair to think they’re collectively out of their minds.
Perata, with Farmer, explains some of the finer points of backcountry ‘boarding to Teter and White, who’ve never done this before. The quieter Haakonsen expresses none of the trepidation shared openly by the youngsters, but when it comes time to jump down inclines of 50 degrees and greater, they all come through just fine.
A later jaunt to another mountain, where some of the guys build a ramp out of packed snow for a jump, proves too much for Farmer, who breaks an arm, and Teter, who crashes unharmed. Most dangerous maneuver by far is pulled off by Rice, who jumps and hits a snow pack that cracks, setting off an avalanche he narrowly eludes.
Final day’s action includes the group deciding against trying one ultra-steep peak when winds kick up, followed by a lovely sequence where they speed down a nearly clear slope (with White looking for small rock outcroppings to jump). Haakonsen confirms his rep as the sport’s best with his incredibly daring choice to return to the steep mountain and challenge its extremely dangerous inclines.
Pic’s excessive 110-minute running time could do with massive trimming by editor Curley, especially since on-camera subjects repeat the same key points ad nauseam (snowboarding is about personal expression, backcountry freestyle is not for the faint of heart).
Former rocker Mark Mothersbaugh is the right choice for the pulsating score, which surprisingly tosses in Indian sitar touches. Liberal use of helicopter-based shooting, under ace lenser Scott Duncan’s lead, proves absolutely essential to properly view these snowboarders cutting through the wilderness.
Pic is Universal’s second doc this year, though the two couldn’t be much further apart in subject matter: First doc was “Inside Deep Throat.”