Although it has been around since the '60s, the sport of snowboarding has only seen significant popularity since the mid-'90s - but in numbers any other sport would envy. It's so popular, as both a participant and spectator sport, that the International Olympic Committee had no other choice but to include it by the time the '98 Nagano, Japan, games rolled around.
Detractors (and there are many) claim it to be little more than a hybrid of snow skiing, surfing, skateboarding and hot-dog aerobatics, and they do have a point. When played competitively, it doesn't offer much variety; everyone does essentially the same routine. That isn't to say it's easy to do. It requires great technique and physical agility and is unforgiving to those who don't cut the mustard.
"First Descent" is clearly geared toward the hard-core followers of the sport who, as we're reminded of constantly throughout, are tired of being regarded as non-athletes.
If for no other reason, filmmakers Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison deserve credit for presenting the movie in a way that fans can applaud and that the uninitiated can understand, if not altogether appreciate.
The movie features five of the sport's all-time greats: three veterans (Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen and Nick Peralta) and two current stars (Shaun White and Hannah Teter) who are brought together in Valdez, Alaska, for what amounts to a private exhibition showcase. For the bulk of the movie, the five participants glide down the intimidating slopes, again without much distinction or variation. A little of that goes a long way, and it gets old fast. Only when Curly and Harrison leave Valdez does the film approach anything resembling depth.
All five athletes get their own biography segments that provide the human element, but, again, no great shakes. Most interesting is the archival footage dating back to the sport's origins, a segment in Japan in which the players are received with a level of reverence and enthusiasm reserved for rock stars and heads of state, and home video clips that are revealing, but not all that flattering.
This is where the detractors get their credence. Looking more like an out-of-control frat party than gatherings of dedicated jocks, it features tons of self-destructive, drunken behavior.
As was the case with other recent sports documentaries ("Riding Giants," "Dogtown and Z-Boys"), "First Descent" is a competent production that preaches to the choir and showers itself with self-congratulatory accolades. Call it "Everest" or "March of the Penguins" for fans of ESPN extreme sports and consider it little more than an overlong infomercial intended more to market than to enlighten.
It's fitting the movie was bankrolled and produced by soft-drink brand Mountain Dew. Like the soda itself, the movie provides a quick and fleeting rush, but it offers no lasting nutritional value of any sort. (Universal/Mountain Dew Films)