Feb 20, 2008 at 12:00 am

With jaw-dropping visuals, the makers of Steep introduce audiences to the death-defying extreme sport of big-mountain skiing, and make it look like surfing on land. The skiers, interviewed by director Mark Obenhaus, describe a spiritual connection to the wild peaks they descend in language that's echoed in the way surfers talk about riding waves. And when you come down to it, it's all about the gravitational pull.

Steep often resembles Dana Brown's Step Into Liquid (2003) and Stacy Peralta's Riding Giants (2004), which delve deep into surfing culture and explore the extremes of big-wave riding. What this documentary lacks is an intimate understanding of this dangerous, adrenaline-fueled pursuit. Brown and Peralta are longtime surfers, and there's an intimacy to their portraits that ABC News veteran Obenhaus can't match. The film is well-researched, compelling and utterly engrossing, but it's done with the professional distance and reverence of admirers, not insiders.

What Steep excels at is chronicling the stories of skiers who have taken their sport out of the well-regulated, safety-conscious resorts (derisively dubbed "snow parks") and into the wild. When Bill Briggs talks about skiing, he uses the word "adventure," and his 1971 climb and descent from the jagged peak of Wyoming's Grand Teton triggered an avalanche of enthusiasm to ski off the beaten path.

Skillfully blending archival footage and stunning new images, Steep documents that need to ski the impossible peaks, a sort of daredevil determinism that acknowledges the ever-present possibility of death. Some of the best big-mountain skiers have died doing what they love, and the most insightful and poignant interviews are with pioneer Doug Coombs, who helped popularize heli-skiing (helicopter drop-offs atop uncharted peaks) near Valdez, Alaska. The articulate and impassioned Coombs died in a 2006 skiing accident near La Grave, France.

The even-toned narration of Peter Krause epitomizes the cool enthusiasm of Steep, but Obenhaus does provide conflict by subtly distinguishing between purists like Coombs and the hot-doggers, epitomized by mohawked Glen Plake, whose wild style was featured in the influential ski film Blizzard of Ahhs (1987).

Even as Obenhaus and his determined crew bring viewers into this solitary world, he shows just how much the camera can corrupt the process. In showcasing twentysomething skiers who make their living creating visually spectacular ski footage for wired enthusiasts, Steep illuminates the slippery slope of extreme sports, from individual obsession to just another commodity in a generation.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 22-23 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].