Judge Eric Profancik wants to soar with the Flying Tomato, Shaun White.
"Big mountain skills or hospital bills."
First Descent: The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution is, as the title explains, about the birth of snowboarding. Actually, it's about the modern evolution of the sport, since snowboarding has been around in some form for about 100 years. I've only skied twice in my life. The first time was technically cross-country, but it was only putting on skis in the eighth grade and trying to go around a quarter mile-lap. It didn't go very well, and wasn't all that much fun. The second time was downhill skiing, and it was much more fun. I could tell my 30-minute instructional class wasn't quite enough, as I could feel that I was one millimeter away from breaking my ankle during one interesting spill.
Beyond that, I don't know anything else about slapping a board on your feet and going down a mountain, around a half-pipe, or over jumps and moguls. I've never had any particular interest in snowboarding, and the closest I can even say as being close to that in my life is playing "Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2" on my GameCube. (It's an excellent game, by the way.) Not close at all.
So, what am I doing with this DVD? I asked for it because I saw the trailer for it on another DVD and I thought it looked interesting. It turns out I wasn't paying close attention to that trailer, because this movie is not exactly what I expected.
Facts of the Case
First Descent follows snowboarding legends Shaun White, Hannah Teter, Shawn Farmer, Nick Perata, and Terje Haakonsen as they embark on a trip to Alaska to do some snowboarding. For Shaun and Hannah, this is new for them, as they have never boarded in such wild terrain. They are used to groomed slopes and manmade courses, where they have earned their fame. For Farmer, Nick, and Terje, they've done this before, and it's like a return trip home to do it all over again. In fact, Terje is a "god" when it comes to boarding these fear-inducing slopes.
The title is a double entendre, implying two different and concurrent themes in this movie—though neither is naughty. The forefront of the two is the trip with the five boarders. A "first descent" is finding a mountain that nobody else has boarded. When you go down, you have made the first descent. Over the course of two weeks, we watch as Farmer, Nick, and Terje mentor and teach Shaun and Hannah everything they need to know for their excursion into the wilds of Alaska. Along the way, Travis Rice briefly joins them for some fun.
Intercut between the boarding is the second story, the story of the snowboarding revolution; its "first descent" from obscurity to notoriety. In a short period of time, snowboarding has evolved from a pastime shunned and demeaned by the skiing community into the literal saving grace of the industry. First Descent gives a succinct and interesting history lesson of where it all came from. Also tossed into the mix are quick bios of four of the five boarders (maybe I missed Nick's).
First Descent is the snowboarding movie for the mainstream masses. Snowboarding is known for its infamous bad boy image of wild partying and insane antics, yet this movie only hints at it. That behavior is part of the history of the sport, but First Descent isn't about that. People also picture boarders as doing impressive stunts and acrobatics in half-pipes and the sort, but, again, First Descent isn't just about that. It's about the entire evolution of the sport. As there are quite a few niche boarding movies about that behavior and those gravity-defying stunts, this movie took the bigger approach and turned into a pretty serious documentary.
When I watched the trailer I must have been half asleep, because I didn't realize this was more of a documentary. In truth, I was expecting another movie with those awesome stunts and moves, and I was a bit disappointed that First Descent wasn't all that. I did go back and watch the trailer again, and it does clearly spell out what the movie is. Regardless, this is a good documentary. It tells the history in an interesting fashion, and by interweaving it with the tale of the five boarders, it gives it context and further intrigue. In one neat and tidy package, you can see where boarding has been and where it is going.
There's not much more to say about the history lesson, so I'm going to go back to the Alaska trip. This part of the movie is somewhat of a tease. In this part, I was hoping to get more sport, more action, and more air. While there is some boarding and some big jumping, I didn't think there was enough. It all felt too sedate for such a sport. I wanted more boarding. Now I realize that wasn't the idea of the movie—or maybe it was more that the weather wasn't fully cooperative during the two-week shoot. While you're watching Shaun (whom I cannot help but affectionately call Carrot Top every time I see him) and Hannah learn, you're just wondering how much longer before they hit the big mountain, gaining their first descent.
For a movie about such a wild and crazy sport, it is just a bit too sedate and a bit too mainstream. They do have their moments when I thought they were crazy "mofos," but they were too few and far between.
Lastly, I want to mention the music used throughout First Descent. As you might imagine, boarders have a certain soundtrack for their life. It's not always a soundtrack that resonates well with those outside the genre. Luckily, the music used in this movie is also somewhat mainstream, meaning it does add to the movie but isn't so ingratiatingly loud or awful that it gives you a migraine.
It seems that some things always look better on HDTV or on DVD. Usually sports, nature shows, or anything natural/outdoors look stunning. With First Descent, it falls into both categories, as it's a sport and it's outdoors. But the movie isn't as crystal clear and jaw-droppingly impressive as I would have expected. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer does an excellent job, but mixing the old and new does detract a few points. The historical footage isn't as clean and sharp as the newly filmed footage, showing a bit of grain with weaker details. Also, the trip to Alaska is simply lacking the depth I've come to expect with this type of filming. On the whole, it's a great print with just these few quibbles. On the other hand, the Dolby Digital 5.1 is near perfect. You won't hear any distortion, hiss, or cracks, and every word of dialogue is clean. The movie doesn't overwhelm you with the surround and bass, which is why it doesn't get the top score.
First Descent does come with some bonus items to keep you going. When you start up the disc, you have the lovely opportunity to watch the trailers from American Pie Presents Band Camp and Jarhead. "Alaska and Beyond" (21.5 minutes) is the big extra feature; a good overview of the making of the movie, with little fluff to bore you. "Top of the World: WESCAM Featurette" (5.5 minutes) talks about the WESCAM, a gyrostablized camera mount used for the cool shots. "A Thousand Words" (5 minutes) is a clever way to say "photo gallery." "Big Mountain Riding" (5.5 minutes) is a brief overview of tips to board safely. Rounding it all out is "Extended Snowboarding Action" (4.5 minutes), and two deleted scenes. All in all, a nice package of extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
During the opening credits, I saw something called "MD Films" listed. "Hmmm," I think. "Mountain Dew Films?" I didn't know Mountain Dew made films. Granted, their ad campaign a few years back featured boarders and other young, crazy shenanigans…but movies? Interesting. A few seconds later in the movie we see Hannah for the first time, and her helmet has a huge Mountain Dew logo on it. Yep, it has to be Mountain Dew Films.
Actually, it's not Mountain Dew Films—it's Michael DeMattia Films. I went to his website and looked around, but didn't find any mention of First Descent. So now I'm confused.
As sedate and mainstream as First Descent may be at times, I believe the highest compliment I can say is that I now have this urge to learn to snowboard. The movie interested me, and made me want to go out and see what I have been missing all this time. Will I do it? Maybe. Southwest Ohio is not exactly brimming with quality slopes, but we'll see if I let that be my excuse or not.
Welcome to the first mainstream attempt at bringing snowboarding movies to the masses. Anyone interested in the sport will find the movie appealing and entertaining. With sharp transfers and a good assortment of bonus items, you won't regret picking this one up.
First Descent: The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution is hereby found not guilty of disturbing the peace and reckless endangerment. Do the Dew!
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