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First Descent’ falls a long way down

“First Descent”

Universal Pictures

Directed by Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison

Starring as themselves: Shawn Farmer, Terje Haakonsen, Nick Peralta, Hannah Teter and Shaun White

Rated PG-13/110 minutes

Opens Dec. 2, 2005

Two out of four stars

A great sports documentary isn’t about sports at all.

Movies like “Hoop Dreams” and “Murderball” reach for universal appeal, exploring the human drama in their stories-broken homes, addictions, well-earned victories and earth-shattering losses. It’s easy to sympathize with people who, regardless of their amazing athletic abilities, are just like you and me.

“First Descent” is about snowboarding-lots and lots of snowboarding. Snowboarding down mountains, on rails, off jumps, through the air, alongside a deadly avalanche, in competitions and throughout history.

If that sounds like a good time, then I ask: Why are you reading this review instead of snowboarding yourself this very instant? For that matter, why bother seeing this movie at all? Wouldn’t that be like watching somebody play a video game that you’re just itching to play yourself?

In other words, I am not a snowboarder. “First Descent” has nothing to offer me or-I assume-anyone else who is not a snowboarder. If you miss it in theaters, don’t panic-it will undoubtedly find its home on one of those small TVs back by the changing rooms in your local Zumies.

The filmmakers, Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison, frame a modern-day story of five famous snowboarders-some old-school pioneers, some 18-year-old prodigies-with archival footage charting the rise of snowboarding from its punk-on-the-fringe roots to its current height of mainstream popularity.

It’s a relatively brief and unsurprising history, which probably explains the existence of the modern-day stuff (padding). Veteran ‘boarders Shawn Farmer (who goes simply by “Farmer”), Terje Haakonsen and Nick Peralta invite the young and talented Shaun White and Hannah Teter to Alaska. They surf the powder of treacherous mountains that have never been surfed before (hence the title, “First Descent”).

These scenes are interrupted by a second framing story, showing us the lives of these five snowboarders one-month prior. Farmer shoots clay pigeons on his parents’ ranch, Terje competes, Shaun emcees at NASCAR, Hannah hangs out with her brothers, and Nick’s home life is never touched on…or perhaps it was. The film is such a jumble of ideas and propagandizing sound bites that I might have missed it.

“Descent” does a poor job of making these snowboarders interesting as human beings. Farmer comes off a little better than the others-he’s a wild man-child who peaked early in life, which might have made a good story. Alas, the filmmakers are too distracted by their snowboarding footage to care.

Speaking of that snowboarding footage, most of it is very standard stuff, mostly shot from a very long distance. Why bother with the cinematic format if we get no sense of the fear and the excitement these ‘boarders must feel?

The way I look at it, snowboarding is more about the adrenaline rush, whereas less “X-treme” sports like basketball and football are more inherently strategic and dramatic. Perhaps that’s why those sports make better movies.

“First Descent” boils down to two hours of showboating snowboarders, which is unlikely to pique the interest of anyone but die-hard fans.

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