In my view, there’s a time and a place for watching people propel themselves down a mountainside on skis or snowboards or whatever makeshift thingie happens to be available — that time involves James Bond being pursued by S.M.E.R.S.H. operatives and at least one person (not Bond) needs to perish over a precipice, while another (again not Bond) has to meet a gory end in a snowplow. In fact, most of the time I was watching First Descent, I was wishing I was watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, I was wishing I was watching Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla or just about anything else.
If I’ve not made it clear, I am not the audience for one of these “extreme” sports documentaries, and this is frankly not a review for those who are. I have no doubt that fans of snowboarding and other adrenaline-goosing sports will find much to admire in this combined examination of the history of snowboarding and five of its practitioners in search of ever bigger rushes by hurtling down snowy slopes in Alaska.
However, the rest of the world is apt to find this one long 110 minutes. Here’s a little secret: One person snowboarding down a mountain and occasionally flying through the air looks a good deal like another person snowboarding down a mountain and occasionally flying through the air. And after the third or fourth time — not to mention after the thirty-fourth time — it becomes more mind-numbing than exhilarating.
Attempting to break up these sequences with interviews and the history of the sport probably sounds good in theory. In practice, it’s rather clunky and depends on your tolerance for listening to people whose vocabularies are bounded by the words “gnarly,” “dude,” “awesome” and the phrase “you know,” which is occasionally varied by adding “like.” Since much of what you hear comes down to the stock sentence, “Dude, like you know, it was gnarly — like totally awesome,” the end result isn’t hard to rethink as Surfer Dudes on Ice.
And that’s the basic problem with all of this — it’s virtually interchangeable with any documentary you’ve ever seen on surfing or skateboarding, etc. You see a remarkable feat of derring-do and then you get to listen to the derring-doer tell you what a life-affirming, mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience it was. I suppose it depends on your point of view, but even if you subscribe to the concept, surely it’s something better experienced in the doing than the watching.
All of these sports seem to share a common bond — at least as presented in these movies. They’re born (usually in a haze of smoke that doesn’t come from tobacco) in rebellion by upstarts out to challenge the status quo and shake things up. Then the whole thing is co-opted by big business when it’s decided that there’s money to be made — much to the chagrin of its originators. This chagrin — in this case — does not extend to refusing to be in a corporate-based film on the subject.
After all, these rebels against society are in a film made by two guys who got their starts producing shows for MTV, and in a film that’s co-produced by “MD Films” — “MD” standing for Mountain Dew, the excessively caffeinated soft-drink that, judging by the commercials, allows one to excel at extreme sports. If this isn’t enough in itself to raise a few doubts as to the underlying sincerity of the project, the extreme product placement inherent in the film is. Within the first few minutes of the film, we see advert after advert not only for Mountain Dew, but nearly everything else in the Pepsi Cola empire. And when the film suddenly veers off into the realm of NASCAR (excused by being where one of the participants was a month earlier), it’s certainly not accidental that the race in question is the Mountain Dew 700!
But overall, the real question is whether or not you’re likely to be impressed by the snowboarding footage — and that, I suspect, depends largely on whether or not you’re already sold on the sport. Myself, I’m holding out for extreme badminton. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and a momentary drug reference.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke