First Descent
Universal // PG-13 // $29.99 // February 21, 2006
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted February 26, 2006
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The Movie:

While snowboarding documentaries have found a sizable home audience (see Warren Miller's many films), "First Descent" was the first one, in my memory, to get a nationwide theatrical release, if a fairly limited one at 243 screens on the film's opening weekend. While not a snowboarder myself, I appreciate the sport and enjoyed the few documentaries directed by Miller that I've viewed recently.

"Descent", directed by Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison, is a look at six pro snowboarders (Shawn Farmer, Nick Peralta, Hannah Teter, Terje Haakonsen, Travis Rice and Shaun White) who are taken up to the top of a middle-of-nowhere Alaskan mountain via helicopter and then chaotically fly downhill on their boards as the camera follows the action.

Building up to (and in-between) the jumps, interviews with the five pros are offered (athough they do have some insight into the sport, most of the footage just has the boarders discussing how cool it's gonna be to hit the mountain), as well as discussion (via interviews and archive footage) of some of the more notable moments in the sport's history.

The film does provide some interesting historical bits and pieces (snowboarding has no known inventor, but came out of an early board called the "snurfer"; although it was originally dismissed, it gained a strong enough following to turn feelings around to the point where corporate sponsors are now heavily involved) and the footage of the multi-generational boarders flying down the Alaskan mountain is often stunning (one boarder triggers an avalanche and flies down the mountain as the snow roars down behind him.) However, the problem is that the picture runs unnecessarily long at nearly two hours (the IMAX documentary "Ultimate X" showed how to make a tight extreme sport documentary that packed everything in nicely at 45 minutes; this could have easily been 90 or less), with some chunks of the documentary feeling like filler.

While it could certainly have been a bit tighter and it's certainly not a film that's going to interest those at least somewhat in the target audience, "First Descent" works well enough to recommend to the snowboarding crowd.


The DVD

VIDEO: Universal presents "First Descent" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality varies at times, which is understandable, given the fact that the footage is taken from various sources. Some of the archive footage looks grainy and soft, but the new footage does appear consistently sharp and nicely defined.

The only issue of real concern is the presence of some minor edge enhancement and a couple of artifacts. Archive footage sometimes appears grainy and a bit worn, but is otherwise clean. Colors look bright and bold, with no smearing or other faults.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is enjoyable, if not particularly remarkable in any way. Surrounds kick in for some reinforcement of the music and some mild ambience, but otherwise aren't employed for anything too noteworthy. Audio quality was satisfying, with bassy tunes and crisp dialogue. Overall, a fine enough audio presentation, but could have been a bit more immersive, a little more "you are there."

EXTRAS: Four brief (but interesting) featurettes: "AK and Beyond", "Top of the World", "A Thousand Words" and "Big Mountain Riding"), extended snowbarding footage (4 minutes, 27 seconds) and 2 deleted scenes.

Final Thoughts: "First Descent" does run noticably rather long at nearly two hours, but it will still appeal to the snowboarding crowd. Universal's DVD edition provides fine audio/video quality and a few supplements. Recommended for snowboarding fans.



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