STUDIO: Magnolia Home Entertainment

MSRP: $26.98

RATED: Not Rated

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes


•  The Making of 180 South

•  A Look at 180 South

•  Trailer

The Pitch

Dudes: wanna quit our jobs and sail down to Chile and climb a mountain?

The Humans

Starring: Jeff Johnson, Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins
Director of Photography: Danny Moder
Director: Chris Malloy

The Nutshell

Lots of movies try to transport us to different worlds.  They aim to create these vastly new yet totally immersive environments, hoping that we’ll get lost in our new surroundings — whether they’re foreign lands, other planets, or even neighborhoods eerily similar to your own.  It’s what we viewers hope will happen when we go to the movies.  We want to escape.  We want to see what we haven’t seen before.  We want to go places we’ve never been and may never be able to visit.

180 South: Conquerors of the Useless is one of those movies. 

Cue Bruce!

The Lowdown

I absolutely loved this film.  It ended up being so much more than I thought it would be when I popped this DVD into my player.  I almost don’t want to heap all of this praise upon it because I’d rather you didn’t have any assumptions going into it, so you can just let it wash over you as you soak it all in and not even realize that you’re being totally whisked away to another world the way that I did.  I don’t want to raise it up too high so that it doesn’t meet your expectations or that you find it less majestic than I did.

I suppose that cannot be helped because I can’t help but recommend this movie highly.  And since you’re now reading this, you’re going to know much more about it than I did before I saw it, and that’s just the way it is.  That said, I know you won’t be disappointed.

180 South follows rock climber/surfer/nomad/vagabond/call-him-what-you-will Jeff Johnson from Danville, California, who has been enamored with the epic 1968 journey that his heroes Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins took from America down to Patagonia.  While his predecessors packed up a van and drove all the way through both Central and South America, Johnson catches a ride on a sailboat heading down to Santiago, Chile.  His goal: to climb Mount Corcovado.

Seth was overjoyed and beyond surprised that eating those two cans of spinach actually buffed up his forearms, Popeye-style.

The movie’s tagline says that “it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”  Thankfully for us, things go wrong almost immediately, leading Johnson on a stunningly photographed odyssey down the coast of the Americas, to Easter Island, and into one of the most gorgeous locales in the world: Patagonia.  I won’t get into every one of his excursions.  Not only could I not do it justice, but the point of the movie is to experience it with Johnson.  To see the picturesque shots of the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean horizon.  To surf the break in view of the mysterious statues on Rapa Nui.  To kayak down glass-like rivers with sea lions cresting alongside.  Trust me when I say this movie is worth seeing on a big screen.

While the cinematography blew my mind – especially considering this seems to be a rather low-budget documentary, a genre not known for its visual prowess – the real treat here is the scenery.  Any photographer with a camera phone could capture an amazing picture in these locations.  Not to take anything away from the job of director of photography Danny Moder and the team of accomplished cameramen, by any means.  Only that with a subject this spectacular and awe-inspiring, it’d almost be hard to not capture that essence.  Director Chris Malloy worked with some incredible cameramen to put this film together — there’s not a single frame that’s not expertly composed and gorgeously photographed.

As for the narrative itself, Johnson is an able protagonist.  He’s likeable, easy to root for, and lives a life as exciting as his name is bland.  He embodies that part of you that always wishes you could just quit your job and go traveling.  I couldn’t count how many people I know who say they wish they could travel more, or say that if they could do anything, they’d want to see the world.  And here we have Jeff Johnson, who does just that.  He sees areas of the world that most people only read about in books — or see in movies.  Working just enough to pay for his next trip, Johnson lives to travel, to climb, to surf.  To live life.

“Yeah, um, I mean I’m sure being a rock climber and surfer is a lucrative job in the States, but uh, yeah.”

It’s no wonder then that his personal heroes are Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins.  To fund their trips back in the ’60s, they started their own little businesses (
Patagonia Clothing
and The North Face — perhaps you’ve heard of them?)
for climbing gear and clothing.  Turns out they were rather successful, and both have since dedicated their lives to conservation and environmentalism; Tompkins bought millions of acres of land in Chile and then donated it back to the government to help create protected nature reserves within Patagonia – an area that makes up much of the southern tip of South America, lying in both Chile and Argentina. 

One aspect of 180 South that I
found fascinating – but could be a turn-off to some, I suppose – was the
political commentary sprinkled throughout.  The only time that I found
it a bit distracting was when Johnson first arrives in Santiago, Chile
— he ends up speaking with an old fisherman who talks of the
destructive ramifications that industrialization has had on his
livelihood and the quality of life for both people and wildlife in the
region.  It established a plot point that the filmmakers needed to hit
in order to have a strong emotional beat near the end of the film,
involving the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the wilderness of
Patagonia and how much damage this form of “clean” energy still does to
the environment.  (This is shown in a clever form of animation that
shows up now and then in the film and adds another spectacular layer to
an already deep and moving film.)  The problem with this set-up with the
fisherman, though, slowed the film down too much for me — it’s like
you could feel the storytellers hard at work behind the scenes pulling
strings on their marionettes and it plucked me right out of the story. 
Luckily, they picked things right back up fairly quickly and kept
gliding right along from there on out.

That said, the film’s
politics should come as no surprise: it’s what you get when you have a
movie about people who forgo traditional lifestyles and career paths to
forge their own paths through the world, measuring their success through
their adventures and experiences, and using what monetary wealth they
may come upon to find ways to give back, not to just consume.

Wank McJerksoffalot sure lived up to his name, staring death in the eye as he pulled his pud on the edge of the mountain.  At least he went out with a smile on his face.  RIP Wank 1979 – 2010.

Now I’m not so idealistic that I vowed to quit my job and plan a trip down to the Andes Mountains after watching this movie, but I was moved by the feeling of being aware of our place in this world and – especially for those of us living in cities – how out of tune with nature we are and what that means.  The film spoke to the human spirit, the desire to explore, to try new things, and to leave the world a better place when we leave, and that resonated with me.  Because what excuses do we have when here are these two old guys who still have that zeal for life and adventure, that kind of spark that I’ve seen already lost in people in their 20s.  And sure, it must be easier to drop everything and climb Cerro Corcovado in Patagonia when you own a couple of massively successful companies — but, if it’s one thing that 180 South shows is that you don’t need much more than the clothes on your back to do whatever it is you want to do.

You just need to get out there and hope that things start going wrong.

“Yeah, um, I mean I’m sure being really old and growing plants is a
lucrative job in the States, but uh, yeah.”

The Package

The 1.78:1 ratio widescreen looked dazzling on my flat-panel HDTV, so I assume it will look the same on yours.  Apparently there is a Blu-Ray version of this movie out there, too, so if you have means I highly recommend that, since the visuals were stunning just on his DVD version. 

The Making of 180 South featurette was great.  It gave us a more in-depth look at the process of the filmmakers, the number of cameramen they had on crew, and the general development of the movie.  It’s revealed that director Chris Malloy had much more of a hand in the story than I imagined at first.  I figured that Jeff Johnson had had an adventure planned out and came to the filmmakers to memorialize it for him on celluloid, when in fact, Malloy chose Johnson as his protagonist to go on this pre-determined adventure.  Not that everything was scripted by any means, but that Johnson was more of a pawn in the story than I thought. 

The following mini-documentary A Look at 180 South really felt like just another version of the previous featurette.  Almost verbatim.  I’m not sure why they included it on the DVD, actually.  But still: it didn’t take anything away from the film.  I loved it.

“Theeeeeeeeese… Foooooolllish Gaaaaaaaaaaammmes!”

9 out of 10