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180° South (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

180° SOUTH (2010)

Featuring Jeff Johnson, Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tomkins and Makohe.

Directed by Chris Malloy.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 85 minutes. Not Rated.

180° South can’t quite seem to decide whether it is a sports documentary, a travelogue, a love letter to nature or a piece of geo-political agitprop – but it succeeds fairly well on each of those levels.

There is some gorgeous and rather exciting footage of both surfing and mountain climbing. The film climaxes in the solitary Patagonia region of Chile and offers many stunning mountain and ocean views. The main characters followed by the film are all passionate adventurers and conservationists who are trying desperately to stem the tide of civilization on the last unspoiled enclaves of nature.

While this wide canvas allows the filmmakers many wondrous moments, the lack of focus somewhat detracts from the power of the film’s arguments. One minute we are on the sea looking for a perfect wave, next minute we are looking at animations of dams, then we are climbing mountains, then we’re in a van in South America, then we are singing by a campfire, then we are talking to protesting natives. There is even a short side trip to Easter Island, just to make a point. A valid point, perhaps, but the audience is shaking its collective head wondering how we got there.

Maybe this is because – it seems – that the focal point of the movie changed as the filming progressed.

The sports segments – though undoubtedly originally the focus of the film – actually are some of the least intriguing here. Not that the nature they are experiencing isn’t stunningly beautiful, but this stuff has all been seen before.

Perhaps I am the wrong audience for that, though, because I have little interest in either surfing or mountain climbing. Perhaps it is simply the lack of skills, but I find it hard to get as geeked up about the experiences as the people in 180° South obviously do.

I mean I get surfing. Despite the fact I am not going to try it out at this point in my life, I can see that it would be such an adrenaline rush that people could become enraptured with it. The whole idea of mountain climbing leaves me completely cold, though – and I lived on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains for a year as a child, so believe me I do understand the sheer utter beauty of mountains. There are ways to see them without taking your life in your own hands and suffering great hardships, though.

The essential storyline of the documentary comes from wannabe-adventurer Jeff Johnson, who finds a 1968 film about surfer/mountain climber/philanthropists Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins’ trip across Latin America to climb a famous mountain in the Patagonia region of Chile. Johnson decides to track down the older men and have them help him relive their adventure.

While taking the several-month journey – by ship, by cars, by planes – and meeting the natives of areas he passes through, Johnson comes to love nature and becomes passionate about the conservation of the wild areas in the world.

The narration, mostly by Johnson, is interesting and ardent for the like-minded, and yet for the Palin-generation he comes off sounding like someone that the “Drill Baby Drill” corps would deride as a “tree-hugger.” I personally agree with Johnson on most of his views and even I occasionally thought he sounded like a do-gooding weenie.

The regular soft-folk-rock interludes don’t help shed that apprehension either.

However, the scenery is stunning and the information imparted, even if occasionally overwrought and at the same time overly dry, is very important to human survival.

Sure, 180° South could – and should – be more interesting and all-inclusive if it wants to push its rather vital agenda. However, the intentions of the movie are so good that you wish to forgive its little imperfections.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: May 7, 2010.

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