First Descent - which opens today to remind you there's always more snow and ice waiting (ugh) - gets its title from "pioneers" of the "snowboarding revolution" who aim, above all challenges, to be the first to plow a path down a mountain still untouched. If you've seen the commercials, you'll probably be expecting clip after clip of men and women dipping their boards over yawning crevasses, gulping, then praying that there's a patch of solid ground where they land.
There's a lot of that, and it is spectacular: My favorite is a guy who lands so hard on one mountain face, he cracks the snow until it turns into an avalanche, which he then successfully rides - as if it were a frozen waterfall. Then there's the guy named Terje who plummets down the side of a mountain so vertical, he might simply be falling into thin air.
But there's a lot more talk - as there tends to be with any documentary about skiing, surfing, or skateboarding that makes its way into a multiplex, as if talk in itself is the same as insight. There's talk of how every snowboarding run is "historical," how the evolution of the sport "changed the face of sports," how so-and-so's maneuver "rocked the industry," and how stoked these guys are to be here in beautiful Alaska, though "it's like this different mind-set."
Which is to say, First Descent has such a self-congratulatory, narrow-minded mind-set - hey dude, they pay you to risk your life, not expound on it - it has its odd charms. Directors Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison (the guys behind MTV's Prom Date) take the approach adopted by surfing films Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid and skating pictures like Dogtown and Z-Boys: There is nothing else in the world more important than snowboarding/skatebaording/surfing/whatever. Choose your sport, kick back on the green Kool-Aid. Or the Mountain Dew.
The soft-drink maker co-financed First Descent with Universal - though in a landmark case of corporate restraint, I don't believe I spotted a single can of the stuff in the entire picture. And Mountain Dew has no interest in the no-holds-barred personality portraits that made a film like Dogtown (or its fictional remake, The Lords of Dogtown) less insular than your average extreme sports documentary. This thing is pure niche programming: for snowboarders, by snowboarders, or anyone who dreams of learning. Anyone else will get a brain freeze after two hours of snowboarder profiles, breathless snowboarding history, and endless montages of daredevils sailing over virgin snow in Alaskan backcountry.
Which, I admit, on a big screen, is not the worst way to blow two hours. But the basic story is the filmmakers round up a couple of generations of snowboarders and send them to Alaska - both pioneers, and the snot-nosed kids who make a blockbuster living traveling the world as snowboard superstars.
There's 18-year-old Hannah Teter, and 40-year-old Shawn Farmer, and the movie's best story, which the filmmakers never recognize: the hyper-structured life of 18-year-old Shaun White, a modest kid with a tangle of unwashed red hair who happens to be the greatest athlete this sport has known. We see him greeted like a superstar. We hear him talk about a schedule where "every date on the calendar has something in red." We see his fish-bowl existence, and it's almost sad when, left unattended in Alaska, he says, "Wow, I'm doing what everybody told me not to."
Translation: Never send your meal ticket off the side of a cliff.