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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: 180 Degrees South

June 6th, 2010

180 Degrees South - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

180 Degrees South is a documentary that follows Jeff Johnson, an adventurer. The film was released in theaters in April, but despite earning good reviews, it never found an audience. This week it makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray, a copy of the latter having arrived on my desk recently. Actually, two copies arrived, which means there will be a contest beginning shortly.

The film starts with Yvon Chouinard and Douglas Tompkins talking about their famous trek in 1968 from Ventura, California to Patagonia to climb Mount Fitzroy, which is on the southern border between Chile and Argentina in a place called Corcovado.

The point of view then switches to Jeff Johnson, the aforementioned adventurer, who found old footage of this roughly 30 years later. He now wants to recreate their journey, which he got to do as part of this documentary, with a modification or two. Yvon and Doug traveled in a crappy van along the Pan American Highway. Jeff, on the other hand, became a deck hand on a sailboat traveling from Mexico to Santiago. I'm not sure which is the worse option, but at least the sailboat offers more opportunity for what Yvon calls adveture and defines the word as, "when everything goes wrong". Jeff does not do so well in the open water and he's never been in a boat this far from land, nor for this long. Worse still, on his watch, faulty rigging fails, causing the mast of the sailboat to be snapped in two. This causes the vessel to make an unscheduled detour to Rapa Nui, a.k.a., Easter Island, a.k.a., one of the most remote islands in the world.

At first, this is a terrible event, because it will delay his arrival to Corcovado and there is a bit of a time sensitive nature to his journey. (It's the summer time in the south, and the longer it takes to get to his destination, the more the ice will have melted. The more ice that has melted, the more dangerous the climb will be.) As the days turn to weeks, this delay could destroy any chance of him reaching the summit. However, getting to know the people of Rapa Nui is one of those wonderful accidents. One of these people, a woman named Makohe, becomes his tour guide to the island, telling him about the history, how exploitation of the resources nearly destroyed the people, etc. She even joins him on the rest of the trip.

It is through her that we meet some of the people from Pichelemu, a small fishing village in Chile that has been devastated by environmental degradation, from over-fishing by industrial fleets to the pollution from the pulp mills. This environmental message is reinforced when they get to Santiago and they meet Juan Pable Orrego, a friend of Yvon and activist. After more than five months of travel, he finally reaches his destination, but has the delay meant too much snow has melted from the peaks, rendering the summit unreachable? If so, does that really mean anything? After all, it's the journey that matters.

The reviews for this movie have been mostly positive, with most critics complimenting the vistas and the beautiful landscapes, as well as the interesting people Jeff meets along the way. The movie has a really strange vibe to it. The film itself takes a 150+ day trip and compresses it into less than half the film's mere 90-minute running time. However, its narrative is also very meandering, but this is part of its charm. Another part of the film's charm is its music. It's not surprising that the special features include a featurette on the music. I also liked the little animated interludes that helped illustrate the history of Rapa Nui, the proposed development of the dams, etc.

There's a strong environmental message to the movie, which couldn't be better timed. Exploiting limited resources for short-term gain is not sustainable. The history of Rapa Nui is a prime example of that. Another example would be the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

I only have two minor complaints. Firstly, Jeff is the least compelling person we spend time with for any length of time, but he's the only one who's in the movie the entire time. He reminded me of the lead character from Into the Wild. Christopher McCandless, a.k.a., Alexander Supertramp, was portrayed as some great adventurer, but in reality he was someone who was running from something. I got the same vibe from Jeff. I'm doubt that's a fair assessment of him as a man, but that's what I got. Secondly, at the end of the film they give updates on Yvon, Doug, and Jeff. I was hoping they would talk about the three other people that were also with them at the end of the trip. Like I said, minor complaints.

I only have the Blu-ray, but there doesn't appear to be any exclusives on the Blu-ray. Extras start with a 24-minute making of featurette that details the origins of the movie, the themes, the people, music, animations, etc. There are five deleted scenes with a total running time of 18 minutes. Almost 40 minutes of music, a lot of which was shot on location, so the sound is less than ideal at times. Finally, there is a 2-minute featurette that is a short version of the "making of" and therefore less interesting.

The technical is mixed, to be generous. Image quality various dramatically depending on the camera used. On the low end, the movies includes footage from a 16mm camera that was shot in 1968. There are a number of shots that look spectacular with amazing color while the surfing scenes stand out. The audio is solid, given the circumstances. You can't compare the film to a summer blockbuster, or even a dialogue driven drama. This is a documentary shot in the field and you have to take that into consideration. On the other hand, the Blu-ray is pricey costing a premium of more than 50%.

The Verdict

180 Degrees South is not a hard hitting documentary, but it has an easy-going charm to it that draws you in. The DVD has enough extras that it is worth picking up, but the Blu-ray costs too much and doesn't offer enough extra to be worth it.

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