All Down Hill

Columbus Alive | December 1, 2005
Like the rest of the recent crop of extreme sports docs—Riding Giants, Step Into Liquid, Dust to Glory—foreknowledge of the subject matter should suffice in letting you know if this movie’s for you. Love snowboarding? All right man, then strap yourself in for a gnarly ride. Not so much? Then don’t bother.

Unlike the best of these x-treme-umentaries, Dogtown and Z-Boys, First Descent lacks a grabby, natural story and sharp, well-realized “characters,” and thus doesn’t have much in the way of crossover appeal. Newbies won’t learn much about the history of snowboarding, and the film won’t necessarily help viewers appreciate the sport.

First Descent is built around an artificial premise that seems more reality television than documentary. Co-directors and producers Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison invite the five top snowboarders in the world—Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Nick Peralta, Hannah Teter and Shaun White—to the Alaskan mountains to spend two weeks snowboarding together.

Ranging in age from 18 to 40 and in skill sets from X Games champs to “backwoods” mountain pioneers, they represent a nice cross-section of pro snowboarding, but their situation feels forced, and they seem awkward in front of the camera and around each other.

Intercut between scenes of the quintet at documentary camp are retellings of the very brief history of snowboarding full of archival footage narrated in earnest, hyperbolic pronouncements by Henry Rollins, and mini-docs featuring our protagonists. It all gets very dull very fast, but despite the deficiencies in the filmmaking and the lack of purpose (other than trying to score some of that Dogtown dough) the athletes’ skills speak quite eloquently for themselves.

There are plenty of gorgeous scenes of the boarders flying down mountains, skimming over avalanches and, in Haakonsen’s case, conquering what seems to be an impossibly steep mountain that was so sick and gnarly it scared off the other four.

When the helicopter-riding cameraman captures one of them gliding through the snow, it’s quite clear why Curly and Harrison wanted to get this footage on a big screen. But if there’s a compelling snowboarding documentary to be made, this, unfortunately, isn’t it.

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