I feel I should start by making a confession: We were late watching the Art of Flight. In fact, it was a full 36-hours after it was released on iTunes that we finally got round to watching it. Yes, I know we’ve been bigging it up as the movie event of the year, and the film we were most excited about seeing. But there is an explanation. Last week was also deadline week for our October issue and late nights spent scribbling, proof-reading and finalising fonts meant we had very little time – if any – to focus on anything else. Even in our deadline bubble though, we were dimly aware of the blog posts, the facebook comment threads and the tweets flying around last week declaring the #artofflight to be “epic!!!” or “awesome!!!!!” – usually followed by an accronym like OMG, OMFG, or even OMFGIHJMJATHG (Oh My Fucking God in Heaven, Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Holy Ghost). OK, so we might have made that last one up, but seriously, it would be hard to over-state the hype surrounding the release of Travis Rice and co’s sequel to That’s It That’s All. So as soon as we’d sent the magazine off to the printers, all work was stopped in the Whitelines office, a couple of celebratory cans were cracked open and the movie was stuck on the screen. Yes, we were expecting big things.
And what we got, were big things. Really big things. Everything about this movie is super-sized, from the budget (the exact figure is a closely-guarded secret, but most people put it at around $2 million) to the riding, to the huge sweeping landscape shots and the enormous mountains they take in. Even the running time, at an hour and a half, is more than twice that of most snowboard films. The sheer size of everything in The Art of Flight is of course, its major strength, and the thing that sets it apart from other snowboard films. But it’s also likely to be the aspect that attracts the most criticism. There will no doubt be core snowboarders who claim to be disgusted by the amount of money that’s been poured into this project; who’ll say that it’s more Hollywood production than an accurate reflection of where snowboarding is in 2011; who’ll point out that there’s too much time spent not showing snowboard tricks, and very little of the “shredding is about having fun with your friends” vibe that snowboard movies are supposed to portray.
But to say that would be missing the point of The Art of Flight. Right from the opening credits, which follow Travis as he boards a plane, it’s obvious that this is a movie that’s as much about the process of making a snowboard movie as it is about snowboarding itself. In the opening section about Alaska, the scenes of the downdays, the insane slo-mo footage of shooting at dead trees and the cabin fever interviews with Alaskan old-hands, are given almost as much screen time as the riding. When they travel to Chile later, we’re treated to a Jake Blauvelt monologue about the country. And a lot of the time they spend in Patagonia and the Darwin Range is given over to describing the sketchiness of the snow conditions, and the difficulties of filming there. Like Jeremy Jones’ Deeper, there’s a very deliberate documentary aspect to Flight – an aspect aimed at giving it a crossover, mainstream appeal. This is a movie that will be appreciated by more than just the hardcore who know the difference between a double cork and a double back rodeo.
That’s not to say that there isn’t enough incredible snowboarding to satisfy the scenesters. One look at the rider list should put any fears like that to rest. In Alaska, Travis is joined by John Jackson and Mark Landvik, and the three of them backflip massive cliffs, throw casual 720s into the middle of lines that would make Jones himself think twice, and session a huge gap jump over a yawning crevasse. Pat Moore puts in an appearance in the Jackson Hole segment, Nicolas Muller and DCP go to Canada with the crew, and the park section in Aspen features the cream of today’s contest riders, including the Mitrani brothers, Danny Davis, and Mark ‘Triple Cork’ McMorris. Scotty Lago meanwhile travels with Travis a lot, proving over and over again that his supreme technical abilities go way beyond winning bronze in the Olympic halfpipe. While there’s not a single rail shot in the whole film, the array of tricks, the variety of spots and the madness of some of the combos mean you barely notice.
The movie does have a slight tendency to turn into the Travis Rice show at points – Travis travelling the world and schooling the finest riders on the planet on their own home turf. The closing shot of Travis dropping the same face as Jeremy Jones is a case in point. He puts a far more technical line down it, with a casual spin in the middle. As you do. But again, keeping the focus primarily on the exploits of one rider will doubtless make the film easier for mainstream audiences (who may not know their McMorrisses from their Mitranis) to understand. And anyway, despite this all-star cast, there are still very few riders (John Jackson being the most notable exception) who can really match Trav trick for trick and line for line.
The documentary aspect also allows Brain Farm head-honcho (and director) Curt Morgan to really make the most of that massive budget, throwing in the kind of incredible mountain scenic shots that would make Peter Jackson jealous. Seriously, we wouldn’t be surprised if the Lord of the Rings director was on the phone to Curt right now asking for tips on how to make his forthcoming flick The Hobbit just that little bit more epic. There are some shots here, like the pillars of ice they find in Patagonia, that you can’t believe aren’t computer generated. Even shots of fist-bumps and high-fives are ridiculously cool, with the $120,000 million-frame-per-second Phantom camera making Travis and co move like the Spartans in 300. This is all matched by perfect shot selection and editing – apparently some of the really banging tricks were left on the cutting room floor because the light wasn’t right. Plus there’s the almost flawless soundtrack that mixes the likes of Deadmau5 with stonkingly heavy metal. And then of course, there’s the shots of helicopters filming helicopters filming helicopters…
The documentary style also has its downsides. Travis’ voice-overs are very American, and cross the line between cool and cheesiness on several occassions. The film is also quite dark, with the focus very much on the trials and tribulations of snowboarding, and the difficulties pros face in getting their shots. There are avalanches, injuries and a ridiculous scene where the riders are reduced to holding a helicopter on a ridge for hours because ice on the rotorblaades means it can’t fly. But then the difficulties of getting shots has been a common thread in snowboard film-making ever since Mack Dawg made Shakedown, publicised with print ads of jibbing Jeremy Jones cradling a broken JP Walker. And in the end, as that film pointed out so well, snowboarding is a dangerous, ‘extreme’ sport. By definition it’s all about pushing your limits in dangerous environments, and the places that the Flight crew film in are the definition of dangerous.
So yes, the Art of Flight is overblown, yes it’s over the top, and yes it’s un-intentionally comic in parts. But it’s also Epic, with a capital E. If you want a “kids keeping it real” film showing snotty jibbers sessionning street rails, this is not for you. But if you want a film that your non-snowboarder mates will understand, a film that shows the best riders in the world performing for the best cameras in the world on the best terrain in the world, then get this. And it doesn’t matter if, like us, you’re late watching it. It probably wouldn’t matter if you waited til next year. Because this is different to most snowboard films. This one is going to stand the test of time. At least until Curt Morgan and Red Bull hook up again for the next one…