If it’s winter, it must be Warren Miller time. Again. Since before Ike was president, the 78-year-old Miller has been making more-or-less annual films dedicated to the exhilaration of all things vertical and snowy. The fact that he’s still doing it—though the actual director’s reins have been handed to successors, including his own son Kurt—suggests that he’s doing something right for his target audience. But for this admitted slopes-o-phobe, Miller’s films and their copycat cousins amount to little more than winter sports porn—a seemingly endless string of money shots designed to stimulate the viewer, with no connective tissue between them.
Warren Miller’s Storm, the 2002 model of this half-decade long pursuit of powderhead thrills, offers more and more and more of the same. Narrating in his trademark avuncular sing-song, Miller guides us on a globe-hopping travelogue of hot-dogger hot spots. We watch heli-skiers dropped on ridiculous peaks for the purpose of de-flowering virgin territory. Snowboarders show off their stuff at the Outlaw Air Exhibition in Snowmass. Ski stars even display their patriotism by joining U.S. Marines on a training exercise in California’s High Sierras, and their sense of history by following the footsteps of ill-fated explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton to ski South Georgia Island near the Antarctic Peninsula.
For most of Storm, Miller continues his legacy as the best ambassador the winter sports industry has ever had. Storm isn’t so much a feature film as it is a Chamber of Commerce reel, with Miller visiting resort towns from British Columbia to Austria while invariably describing each one in terms that suggest paradise on earth. The images portray snow-dotted hamlets, filled with people eager to take advantage of their lift-accessible glory. Just to break things up a little, the scene periodically shifts from commercial ski locales to those only aircraft can reach, or drops in a montage of skateboard or mountain bike trickery. But at their core, Warren Miller films are commercials—Miller’s oeuvre is to the ski enthusiast what Steve Sabol’s NFL Films is to the pro-football fan. It’s no accident that Miller films start making their rounds as the weather turns crisp, or that attendees at this week’s screenings will receive a Canyons lift ticket voucher. Their job is to work snow bums into a lather of anticipation for the season at hand—and if they get a hankering to visit the spots the film is pimping, so much the better.
There’s also the element of spectacle to any Miller extravaganza, as the showcased athletes deliver ooh-and-aah-inspiring performances—ski-jumping over freeways, plowing down 45-degree angle descents with avalanches in hot pursuit, or somersaulting through fields of moguls. Some of the exploits are indeed spectacular, reminding you that some people’s endless pursuit of a bigger, better adrenaline rush will lead them to do positively insane things. But a little extreme action goes a long way when there’s nothing holding it together. If a tightly-packaged highlight reel like ESPN’s Ultimate X starts to feel padded at 40 minutes, imagine that feeling stretched to 90 minutes. Now imagine that multiplied by decades of seeing Miller repeat the same formula, and you’ve almost got a sense for how wearying the experience is for anyone but the most rabid true believers.
But if Storm grows repetitive when it’s trotting out the big air, it’s almost cringe-inducing when it’s trying to be serious. The Marine training sequence is—not surprisingly, since Storm is sponsored in part by the Marines—a fawning attempt to drape this weightless presentation in the American flag, as our intrepid athletes realize that boy, it’s tougher being a soldier than being a skier. Perhaps worse still are comments from the party heading to South Georgia, which demonstrate all the genuine historical insight of moments from an MTV Real World “confessional.” If you’re going to make what is essentially a tease for skis, it’s best not to get too pretentious about it.
Since Storm is essentially a tease for skis, it will be easy enough to dismiss the grumblings of this non-enthusiast as coming from someone who “just doesn’t get it.” Fair enough. But even having updated his standard structure for the X Games age, Miller can’t possibly have anything more to say that he hasn’t said a hundred times already. After 50 years, it’s all becoming one big white blur.