It begins with a very literal cliffhanger. Five snowboarders--the best in their field, we're told--are dropped via helicopter atop an Alaskan mountain called 7601, imaginatively named for its height above sea level. Swooping aerial shots around the peak convince us that it's steep, high and dangerous. All they have are their boards. Can they possibly make it down?
Unfortunately, if you want to find out--and rest assured, the answer is extraordinarily anticlimactic--you have to sit through an hour and a half of uninspiring documentary about the history of snowboarding and boring flashbacks to what each of the five was doing one month prior. First Descent: The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution is brought to you by MD Films, with the MD standing for the high-caffeine soda Mountain Dew (yes, really), but be sure not to actually drink any Mountain Dew product before sitting down to watch it, if indeed you must watch it at all. It's dull enough to make a Mormon fidget; no telling what the addition of caffeine to the equation might produce.
The history of snowboarding as a sport might be interesting if anybody really knew anything about it, but if this movie is any indication, no one does know where or how it started, yet everyone claims they were there when it began. You half expect Dogtown skateboarder Stacy Peralta to show up and take credit for the whole thing, but no; Tony Hawk does the honors of claiming snowboarding as an offshoot of the whole skateboarding movement he's known for.
The setup itself sounds like an MTV series: Five snowboarders come together to live in a cabin in Alaska and try out some freestyles in the wild, on mountains no one has ever tried (the term "first descent" means being the first person to board down a mountain). There are two veterans (40-year-old Shawn Farmer and 37-year-old Nick Perata), one foreigner (Norwegian Terja Haakonsen, 30) and two youngsters, including a token woman: X Games gold medalist Shaun White and Hannah Teter, both 18. It might be fun to see how they all get along in close quarters, especially with only one woman to four seemingly single guys.
But there's none of that here. Between boarding missions, they occasionally talk to the camera, with Teter getting a disproportionate amount of time because, hey, guys wanna see the babe. But she has nothing to say; a typical quote: "I was all, like, yeah, it's good!" At her very deepest, she admits to liking Boyz II Men more than *NSYNC. But if she comes across as an airhead, her compatriots aren't much better. In awe of nature, they are at a loss for words to describe their experience in it, frequently falling back on the term "gnarly." At one point, one of them actually opines that "the biggest thing that would bum me out is if someone got hurt." Well, at least he's sensitive. Farmer, who doesn't sound like he's matured any in the last 20 years, gets off the best line: "Don't sweat the petty--pet the sweaty!" A little of that would have made things more interesting, for sure.
The central problem here appears to be one of focus. If the goal was to do the Dogtown and Z-Boys of snowboarding, the movie needed to be centered on some of the pioneers--or at least on some of those who brought the sport mainstream, if we take at face value the claim that nobody knows who the pioneers are. Instead, the history and the present-day trip to Alaska keep interrupting each other, and the trip is treated like a mediocre season of Lost, with every major player getting an extended back-story sequence that really doesn't matter much in regard to the action at hand. The way to make that part work would be to play it as a reality show, along the lines of Tough Enough or The Ultimate Fighter, with one snowboarder eliminated every week and the winner getting a pro contract.
In trying to be everything, the movie feels five hours long. The snowboarding footage ought at least to be worthwhile, but so much of it, by technical necessity, consists of blurry long shots taken from a helicopter. The most exciting visuals on display come directly from the winter X Games, which prompts the rather obvious question: Why not simply watch the X Games? Until a filmmaker can give you a better answer than First Descent (even the snowboarders-vs.-terrorists flick Extreme Ops was more fun), don't spend your cash to find out.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.