AT A TIME WHEN many people are worried about unemployment, along comes a movie that makes a convincing case for seeking it out. The feature-length travelogue 180° South, out this spring from director Chris Malloy and adventure clothier Patagonia, follows journeyman surfer and climber Jeff Johnson, 41, on a six-month sail from Mexico south to Chile by way of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Inspired by a 1968 pilgrimage made by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and the North Face founder Doug Tompkins, the film offers a simple point: Two weeks of vacation per year does not a life make.
"I don't think you really understand the impact of your adventures until years later," says Johnson, of Ventura, California. "I talked to Yvon about that. He had no idea how his trip would affect him until looking back now."
Judging by the footage from that 1968 trip, which is interspersed throughout 180° South, Chouinard and Tompkins, now 71 and 66, lacked pretense as much as they lacked perspective: They went climbing and happened to bring a camera. Malloy and Johnson set out to make a film, and the moments of serendipity and calamity they captured will be familiar to anyone who's traveled for months on end.
Yes, the yacht's mast really did snap in the Pacific on Johnson's watch, which forced the crew to limp 400 miles to Rapa Nui, where, yes, they were greeted by lovely local wahine Makohe Acuna and, yes, they did find a eucalyptus trunk that served as a cantilever, allowing the boys to MacGyver their half mast back into place. And when Acuna asks whether there's room for her on the boat? Resounding yes. According to Malloy, Johnson and Acuna "totally hit it off but never hooked up."
The film struggles when it oversteps the travel narrative into a mawkish brand of environmentalism, featuring voice-overs on energy use and controversial dam building in Patagonia. "We drank the Kool-Aid; we're in the cult," says Johnson. "But we never want to be heavy-handed." Still, 180° South succeeds not by exposing coastal pulp mills but by exposing you to the world you're missing. No matter where you watch 180° South, you're bound to feel a little trapped and in need of a vacation, preferably a long one, to a beautiful piece of open country.