The box for 'Steep' describes it as a "super-charged chronicle of extreme skiing!" Never has there been less truth in advertising. Based on that blurb, was I wrong to expect lots of kick-ass footage of daredevil skiers doing crazy stunts, and white-knuckle documentary drama about the lengths these athletes will go to feed their appetites for danger? Instead, all I got from 'Steep' is a doc with no story concept on which to hang its footage -- it's simply a bland amalgam of talking heads spouting pseudo-profundities, interspersed with pretty shots of snow-covered scenery.
Directed by Mark Obenhaus, 'Steep' examines the world of extreme skiing, a sport that the film says is all about "breaking the rules." It's a shame, then, that this doc is so formulaic. It does nothing we haven't seen before -- compiling interviews with some of the biggest stars of the sport and editing them together with some nicely-shot footage and a new-agey muzak score. Unfortunately, it's such a restrained approach, and so reliant on the interviews, that there's no sense of visual dynamics or narrative drive. It's about as exciting as watching snow fall.
What disappointed me most about 'Steep' is that it doesn't delve deep enough into the personalities of the people it interviews. We gain no insight into what drives them. Why do these men (and one woman, the amazing Ingrid Backstrom) do what they do? Obenhaus may have attracted an impressive line-up of subjects to sit in front of his cameras, but either he failed to asked them the tough questions, or he edited all the good stuff out. The film repeatedly deflated my initial excitement, as Obenhaus seemed more interested in polishing up sound bites or cutting to yet another slow motion shot of a blustery ski slope. It's all very stately and polished, but it's so concerned with the Big Grand Statement that it never convinces us to care about the subject in the first place.
Is there anything worthwhile for ski buffs in 'Steep?' Indeed, there are some isolated, if fantastic, images to behold, especially a few sweeping overhead shots of skiers perched precariously on the brink of death. I also appreciated the film's nuts and bolts overview of the sport, from its birth (widely credited to Bill Briggs' seemingly impossible ascent of the Grand Tetons in 1971) to the lengths current partisans of the sport will take in search of thrills, such as the film's most startling image, that of Shane McConley leaping over a riverbed. Unfortunately, despite these minor bright spots, for me 'Steep' did the impossible -- it made the sport of extreme skiing actually seem kinda boring.
'Steep' comes to Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, and the 1.78:1 aspect ratio is about the only consistent thing about it. This one is all over the place, with a mix of varying film stocks that can so veer so wildly in quality that it's hard to get a handle on it.
Anchoring the film are the interview segments, which according to the extras were shot in HD. Aside from being soft (the DP sure loves his diffusion filter), they boast a fair amount of detail and good color saturation. No great shakes, but nice-looking stuff.
The film's real Raison d'être is of course the ski sequences. A mix of Super16 and some HD shots thrown in for good measure, I was never really blown away by any of this material. Sure, there's a cool, very three-dimensional shot here or there, but generally, noise was far more prominent than I expected and colors were a tad fuzzy. Depth and detail never sparkled, either. I just never really felt I was watching a true high-def presentation.
To be fair, you can find a few awesome moments in 'Steep,' and this is a perfectly fine, perfectly smooth AVC MPEG-4 encode, but I was really hoping for a kick-ass demo disc, and on that level I have to admit I was disappointed.
The audio options on 'Steep' are the most limited I've seen on a Sony Blu-ray title -- only a single Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit), and nothing else. The film is also almost entirely devoid of actual production sound, so it's limited to narration, talking head interviews, and nice if unexceptional underscore.
Given the limited nature of the film's sonic palette, it's up to the music to deliver any sense of envelopment. The score bleed is indeed nice here, lending a hefty presence to the rears and even some distinct separation of instruments. Narration and interview dialogue is predictably rooted to the center, and is well recorded if somewhat muffled -- low tones got lost for me in a flatness that leaves the whole track teetering on the brink of blandness. Don't expect much from the subwoofer, either, as the music is mostly ethereal. I can't fault this track on any sort of technical level, but nothing about it really stands out, either.
'Steep' is hitting Blu-ray day-and-date with the DVD version, and they share identical extras. All of the video material is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 only, and there are no subtitle options.
'Steep' is a documentary about extreme skiing, yet there's nothing extreme about it -- I found it far too bland and reverential to offer anything more than an admittedly pretty travelogue of snow-covered landscapes. Likewise, this Blu-ray is a polished if empty package. The video and audio are serviceable but not spectacular, while the extras at least offer some measure of depth. Unless you're a extreme skiing fanatic, this is not the demo disc that an early adopter craves -- I'd be hard-pressed to recommend more than a rental for 'Steep.'