One can get too much of even the best things, and in the case of this overlong snowboarding documentary from Kevin Harrison and Kemp Curley, the material itself isn’t of top grade. “First Descent” has some nice footage of long rides down steep Alaskan mountains, but it’s burdened by an excessively enthusiastic effort to provide a history of the sport, narration that’s often over-the-top (as well as so floridly delivered by Henry Rollins that the effect comes close to parody), and interview excerpts that are too numerous and repetitive. The result is a mediocre 110-minute movie that could probably be whittled down to a pretty good forty-minute short.
It would also help if those forty minutes had been shot in the IMAX format, which has frankly spoiled us in this sort of thing. One can only imagine how great these snow-covered Alaskan vistas and the action moments of snowboarders expertly negotiating their way down some magnificent slopes would look on the really big screen–especially if it were also in 3-D. As it is, though, we have to be content with conventional widescreen cinematography–fine as far as it goes. The trouble is, it doesn’t go far enough.
The focus of the film is the visit of three young stars of the pro extreme snowboarding circuit–Shaun White, Hannah Teter and Travis Rice–to the remote Alaskan wilderness, where they join some of the sport’s early practitioners–Shawn Farmer, Nick Peralta and Terje Haakonsen–for an introduction to the world of Big Slope boarding. Interspersed with ample footage of the two weeks they spend together and interviews with all of them about their backgrounds and their experiences (in which the words “gnarly” and “awesome” recur with depressing regularity) are scenes showing the development of snowboarding from a rebel offshoot of surfing and skateboarding to its emergence as a professional occupation and even an Olympic sport, as well as brief biographies of the six skaters on display. It culminates with Haakonsen’s decision to attempt a “first descent” from a threatening peak never snowboarded before. So while the newcomers are undertaking first descents of their own, one of the old timers adds to his already lengthy resume with another striking run.
All of the featured athletes here are likable in various ways, with White an attractively gawky fellow not yet ruined by his celebrity, Tetet a slightly spacey but nicely earthy young woman, and Rice a generally glowering, James Dean-like rebel. Among the veterans of the slopes, the relatively taciturn Haakonsen and the voluble, regular-guy Farmer stand out, with the latter’s free-wheeling attitude spotlighted to appeal the audience–a bit too much, in fact.
But though the snowboarders are a pleasant group and their skills are initially remarkable to watch, after awhile even their most demanding runs come to have more than a bit of sameness to them. The interview excerpts tend to ramble on, too, in the concluding montage so much that one begins to suspect the movie might never end. And the “historical” section of the picture, while including some good footage, tends to become a lot like an advertisement for the sport, especially because it’s encumbered with a narration full of purple prose and delivered by Rollins in an absurdly italicized way. The result certainly can’t compete with either “Dogtown and Z-Boys” or “Riding Giants” in impact.
If “First Descent” had been done with greater flair and a stronger hand at the helm (and especially in the editing room, where Curley did the honors), it might have been a blast. As it is, it’s more like a damp squib.