Just because it's a documentary, and its goals might be slightly loftier or more intellectual than a traditional narrative film, doesn't mean it's any good. '180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless' (groan) is proof positive of this.
The film starts out intriguingly enough: Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins were once counter-culture explorers. Together, during the 1960s, they set off on adventures around the world, and the one that left the most severe impression on both of them was a trek to Patagonia.
"Oh wow!" I thought. "This is going to be like a real-life 'Up,' with these two old timers going back to Patagonia to explore this mountain, accompanied by a scrappy youngster, Jeff Johnson." But then the movie proper starts and you realize Jeff Johnson is a world class "dirtbag" (to use the phrasing of the old times in the movie), who is more or less a drifter, working odd jobs here and there to get cash, which, in turn, further fuels his wanderlust. He likes to climb stuff, surf stuff, and make quasi-philosophical, introspective notes about the nature of life and conquest of civilizations that would seem unsophisticated to a high school civics student.
Anyway, Jeff sets out to go to Patagonia, because, apparently, he doesn't have a job. (Seriously, every time the caption came up on the screen that read "50 Days" or "113 Days" or something like that, I kept thinking, "Has he checked in with anyone?" But maybe I'm just a huge square.) He talks a lot about the "experience" and "adventure" and, after the boat he is traveling on gets more or less shipwrecked on Easter Island (because the mast snapped while on his watch), he meets a pretty native girl, thinks about the destructive nature of society, and quotes Aldous Huxley. Poorly.
There are only so many lovingly photographed sequences of rock climbing and surfing that one man can take, especially when the "narrative" of this documentary is so flimsy. Yes, Jeff seems to be a very nice guy, and someone obviously felt he would be a compelling subject for a documentary. But he's also kind of a dumb-ass, with his reductive reasoning and hippie dippie free love nonsense getting in the way of any actual sense of adventure. He should shut up and enjoy the ride, or something, instead of taking time out to talk about the dangerous influx of pulp mills in Chile.
Yes, I'm serious.
It's like the filmmakers saw the success of 'An Inconvenient Truth' and 'Endless Summer' and decided to create some ambitious, muddled mash-up, combining exhilarating, naturalistic footage of adventure with finger-wagging education. Their approach was undoubtedly thought of as "enlightened." You will probably think it is more "boring" and "dreadful."
And what about those two old guys that Jeff shacks up with to scale Patagonia? Well, they are now old white men who run multimillion-dollar corporations (Patagonia and North Face, respectively) and probably contribute to all those social and environmental woes (no, I don't care about how much non-profit work they do) Jeff bemoans so often, sometimes while skateboarding through an urban Chilean town.
The dangers of the mountain (and these are not inconsiderable, once they get there and realize they may be in way over their heads) pale in comparison with having to listen to this guy talk.
The intent seems nice and pure, but '180 Degrees South' is unfocused and not very much fun. As the Academy Award-winning documentary 'The Cove' taught us last year, you can tackle a big issue and do it in a perfectly entertaining way. Instead, '180 Degrees South' seems to be a fairly fluffy documentary that strives, desperately, to be about more than just a nostalgic hippie with a beard who hates responsibility and wants to climb a mountain. Sadly, it never succeeds.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The disc does automatically play, after which we're treated to Magnolia's god-awful home entertainment logo and a few commercials for their ambitious on-demand stuff. The 25GB disc is Region A locked. It is BD-Live enabled, but there was nothing in terms of content at the time of this review.
Well, no matter how lousy the movie is (and trust you me, it's plenty lousy), you can't fault its video presentation, which is eye-popping. Seriously, as much of a grouchy asshole as I've been, I have to give it up to the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.78:1).
Most of the footage is from crisp digital cameras (except for the old school footage, of course), and between the rock climbing, mountain climbing, sightseeing and surfing, this really is a treat for the eyes. It's not exactly 'Endless Summer,' but the photography is often breathtaking and this transfer provides an immediate, you-are-there, nearly-three-dimensional presentation that has to be seen to be believed.
There's really nothing negative you can say about this transfer. There aren't any issues with the new digital video, everything looks lovely, and this is even more impressive given how clearly low budget the movie was and how small the disc is (25GB).
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does less to get you into the experience of the movie, but it does an okay job reproducing the enjoyable, easy-listening indie folk score.
Truthfully, most of the audio from the main thrust of the movie sounds kind of lousy. This isn't the mix's fault. The movie was incredibly low budget and the conditions were often unbearable, with wind and water always whipping around.
That said, the movie's songs and soundtrack sound surprisingly full-bodied, utilizing much of the surround channels in nice, entertaining ways. These will be songs you'll want to break out at your next outdoor sleepover or camping trip.
Even, if you're like me, you tried to tune this movie out, the songs suck you back in.
All the extras presented here are also on the standard DVD edition. The disc, however, is equipped with BD-Live, but at press time there were no additional features posted.
Truth be told, I thought '180 Degrees South' was a pretty loathsome little movie. It's a documentary that thinks it's about something more important than some dude following in the footsteps of his hippie-sellout elders. At less than 90 minutes long, it's an excruciating exercise in plodding, delusional self-importance (like, far out). While the special features and audio aren't exactly top notch, the video really is. I say skip it, but if you're a sucker for 'Endless Summer'-type documentaries, except without the compelling scenarios or characters, then give it a rent.