A well-intentioned doc about explorers shifts gears midstream to become a similarly well-intentioned doc about ecosystems and the slow deterioration (or end) of the great outdoors. "Progress" has eroded much of the wilderness in the parts of Central America that Jeff Johnson passes on his life's dream excursion to Patagonia. He could take a plane straight there but opts to take earthbound routes instead because, "if I don't make it I know what I come home to; if I do my future is limitless." Though not similarly limitless, box office for this title seems quite promising with the film's expansive views and indie rock soundtrack angling for just the right demographic, but marketing will be required to put the word out so this doc can go far into the financial unknown.
Jeff Johnson is from Danville, California. He still remembers when, as a child, he first saw rock climbers (‘men scaling a wall') and surfers (‘facing a wall of water'). Clearly adventure, a word his guides call "overused," is made up of man and impossibility. However, the goal of adventure is not solely challenge, working with the landscape is also part of the ride, and this makes the whole proposition seem like the most literal marriage of man and life available to us humans.
After finding footage of a 1968 climbing expedition launched by Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, Johnson decided it was his goal in life to reach the peek of Corcovado, a mountain in Patagonia. First he spoke to Chouinard and Tompkins (now the founders of Patagonia and North Face outdoor equipment, respectively), whose lives have changed drastically since metalsmithing their own climbing gear in a warehouse in Ventura. Now the two are dedicated to the longest standing preservation project in Central America.
Perhaps expecting to see a quainter metropolis, the cityscape of Santiago, Chile (which they pass en route to the pristine landscape of Patagonia) inspires in Johnson a concern with energy consumption and the more irresponsible uses we make of land. It becomes clear from this that 180° South, which begins as a conquistador's valentine to uncharted territories, can't reasonably or ethically make its case about "the great outdoors" without making a point about its steady and swift disappearance. While the indie rock soundtrack goes pretty far in making the advocacy doc a palatable non-manifesto, the film makes a strong case that loving the outdoors means protecting it. It's conceivable the lack of preservation efforts in the world says something about the diminishing number of adventure seekers out there; but that could be projection or just weak logic. In addition to the film's gentle activism comes a lovely perspective on life and our orientation to consumption that almost feels like antidote to the destructive "progress" that bests the explorers' paths. Chouiard tells the junior climbers: "Who gives a shit what the Holy Grail is? It's the quest what's important."
Director: Chris Malloy
Producer: Tim Lynch
Running time: 85 min.
Release date: May 21 ltd.