Concede that snowboarding is fun and you've got both the best and worst reason to see First Descent, a handsome, big-budget documentary built around a trip by five notable snowboarders to remote reaches of Alaska. It's as though someone said, "Verily, dudes, let us make the baddest snowboarding movie ever," raised gobs of cash and called everyone they knew -- then neglected to ask any good questions or even pick a viable theme.
At nearly two hours, First Descent has everything you'd need for a diverting 30-minute film: Five distinctive characters, from teen-age stars to still-game veterans; astounding mountain vistas, shot by helicopter; aerial acrobatics; and a subculture just juicy enough -- turf wars with skiers, Olympic drug-testing scandal -- to be interesting.
But as directed by Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison, First Descent (subtitled "The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution") consistently makes both too much and too little of its subject. Its scant but surprisingly orotund Henry Rollins narration informs us that the sport is "[b]ased on freedom, flow, self-expression" -- which apparently distinguishes it from everything else in American culture. The pioneers of the 1970s and '80s are portrayed as rebels; having to scrounge for lift-ticket money is implicitly equated with economic oppression; and the sport is linked to contemporaneous skateboard and punk-rock subcultures. Yet such reference points only remind you how Stacy Peralta's 2001 skate-culture documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, covered similar terrain better by creating a palpable sense of place (rather than visiting an idealized vacationland) and minutely exploring its asphalt-level subculture.
Throughout are nuggets of interest. Better interviews about potentially deadly terrain might have explored the nature of fear (which some boarders fail to conquer). Pioneering snowboarder Shawn Farmer, a 40-year-old teen-ager who now works a day job in carpentry, might have made a fascinating character study. Privileged young white snowboarders ticking off privileged middle-aged white skiers resonates about as well as a debate over the relative merits of Cream and The Pietasters (who are among the exultantly angst-ridden bands featured on the wall-to-wall soundtrack), but at least it's a theme. We could even have learned about how someone masters the sport, instead of being asked to simply admire its best athletes.
Instead all we get is the ineffable radness of snowboarding. And the boarders' own insights seldom go deeper than Farmer's "When you throw down and kill on a really sweet line, it's an awesome feeling."
All the athletes seem nice enough, from freckled, 18-year-old Vermonter Hannah Teter to all-worlder Terje Haakonsen, of Norway. But if there's anything behind their typically sunny self-indulgence, we never see it. They are most eloquent when in action -- tiny figures etching creases in vertiginous acres of smooth white powder -- but even the impressiveness of their stunts is dimmed through sheer repetition. Hardcore fans will appreciate First Descent anyway, but the best anyone else can hope for is a refreshing nap in the mountains.