“First Descent” may not be enough of a ride for snowboarders, who probably would love this documentary about their sport to run to epic length.
For everyone else, “First Descent” may be too long a trip, its approach overly broad and unfocused as the filmmakers try to incorporate a personal story of five thrill-riding snowboarding stars into a generic chronicle of the sport’s development.
At nearly two hours, “First Descent” ends up belaboring the snowboarding phenomenon more than illuminating it. The film progresses in stops and starts as it flits from truly spectacular mountain sequences to repetitive, self-congratulatory interviews in which snowboarders prattle on about what innovative rebels they all are.
What salvages much of the movie for non-snowboarders are the remarkable images of boarders sailing down endless, nearly perpendicular walls of snow. You can dust off cliches such as “jaw-dropping” for some of those moments, which look physically impossible to survive until you see the snowboarders safely shushing up to the cameras at the bottom of their runs.
Directors Kevin Harrison and Kemp Curley, whose production company has handled TV coverage of the X Games and other sports, rounded up old-guard boarders and new stars for a jaunt to Alaska.
The group ranges from 40-year-old Shawn Farmer and 39-year-old Nick Perata to 18-year-old wunderkinds Hannah Teter and Shaun White. They fly by helicopter to remote peaks for incredible jumps, balletic spirals and breakneck runs amid seemingly crushing avalanches.
The 30-year-old superstar Terje Haakonsen provides the highlight: His amazing “first descent” is a run down a mountain where no boarder has gone before, a peak resembling the craggy lair of the Grinch in the Dr. Seuss Christmas story.
Unfortunately, such thrills are dulled with filler as Harrison and Curley provide copious interviews and archival footage to trace how snowboarding evolved from a fringe pastime frowned on by skiers to the rage of resorts everywhere.
A little bit of that general background would have gone a long way toward putting the adventures of the film’s five principals in perspective. Yet the filmmakers overdo it, and the story of rebels who became icons feels like the same tale already told in the skateboarding documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and the surfing chronicle “Riding Giants,” both of them better films with more insight on their sports, the participants and their cultural impact.
Focusing squarely on the Alaskan venture, with trace elements of snowboarding’s broader history, may have made for a stronger story. And any audience — snowboarders or not — wouldn’t mind seeing more of those insane mountain plunges.