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Should be a treat for snowboarding fans, but not for the rest of us
The best thing about "First Descent" is that it lives up to its promise from the trailer of "no wires", "no special effects", and "no stunt doubles". Unfortunately, although this snowboarding documentary is occasionally thrilling, it only skims the surface of its subject matter and manages to wear out its welcome by the time the end credits roll.
The primary fault of "First Descent" is that it is two movies in one, and neither is given enough time. The first is a history of the sport since its conception. Intercut with this is the story of five snowboarders (Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Nick Perata, Hannah Teter, and Shaun White) on a trip to Alaska to board down untouched powder in the Alaskan mountains (these rides are called "first descents"). Thankfully, despite the fact that the movie is produced by MD Films, none of the boarders ever crack open a Mountain Dew for the camera.
The historical section of "First Descent" is a straightforward primer on the sport. Archival footage is mixed with interviews from dozens of authorities in the community. Several interesting topics are touched upon including snowboarding's growth from the X-Games to the Olympics, the effects corporate sponsorship, and the influence of filmmakers and photography on the spread of snowboarding's popularity.
Unfortunately, each of these topics is only allotted several minutes and is paid lip-service rather than explored to any satisfactory depth. Certain topics such as the ties between the snowboarding, surfing, and skateboarding beg for their own segment, but are only mentioned in passing. Furthermore, these issues represent only a fraction of the running time from the historical section. Much of the history of the sport, as presented, turns out to be less than compelling and is suffocated by a constant barrage of snowboarding stunt clips. Although some of the footage is impressive, it soon becomes repetitive and tiresome.
The Alaskan sequences, although flawed, are the more interesting segments and feature new material produced for the film. This material is exquisitely well-shot and is often awe-inspiring. The sheer size of the peaks and their near vertical drops are captured well enough to convey a tangible sense of danger. The boarders are seen performing death-defying stunts, some of which are mind-boggling in execution. One boarder even unwittingly starts an avalanche, only to narrowly escape courtesy of some impressive boarding.
These images make one wonder why production companies decide to spend inordinate amounts of money on visual effects (see the avalanche scene from 2002's "xXx") when there are daredevils out there who will give you the real deal and have a great time doing it. It is likely that skill in capturing these stunts is the reason "First Descent" is seeing a release on the big-screen, especially since the historical sections would be more at home on television rather than in large format.
Each of the Alaskan boarders is given a background as to their history in the sport. However, these introductions are only around five minutes each, and for the most part these athletes are thrust into their "runs" down the Alaskan mountains before the viewer gets to know them. Again, intriguing issues such as how one of the boarders, Hannah, is a woman in a man's sport are given only cursory attention. The weakness of this is that although the boarders are exposed to dangerous situations in the mountains, the viewer has trouble caring about their plights beyond them being "man versus nature". Additionally, since just about all of the Alaskan sequences take place on the mountains with boarders on solo-runs, neither the personalities of the boarders nor the bonds between them can be developed. When the boarders gush about how they have "grown" or "bonded" with each other over the trip, their comments lack resonance.
Fundamentally, "First Descent" tries too hard to be the snowboarding documentary to end all others, and the result is a lack of focus. The film's length is not enough to illustrate snowboarding's entire history and the story of five boarders in Alaska. In trying to cover all the bases, "First Descent" ends up covering none of them well enough. However, a longer running time would have proved equally fatal as the film sometimes drags along at its current length.
The better approach would have been to focus in on only one of the two main story lines. Of the two, the human element is most compelling. A more in-depth look at the five boarders would not only be more emotionally satisfying, but the best snowboarding footage (of their runs) could be retained. Interestingly, 2001's skateboarding doc "Dogtown and Z-Boys", although stylistically inferior to "First Descent", featured a commitment to character that ultimately proved to be more effective.
If you are a snowboarding nut, see "First Descent" in theaters to truly appreciate the stunts captured for the film. Otherwise, you should consider skipping this one. As pure eye candy, "First Descent" is an 8/10. As a documentary however, it's closer to 4/10. Taken as a whole, its rating falls somewhere in between.
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