From acclaimed director Stacy Peralta comes Riding Giants, the story of big wave surfing. Breaking the mold of traditional documentary filmmaking, Riding Giants uses its dynamic, cross-generational approach to profile the lives and times of the intrepid surfers who over the decades have dedicated themselves to finding and successfully challenging the biggest waves on earth.
We meet Greg Noll, the pioneer, whose relentless push into Hawaii's big surf in the late 1950s earned him the nickname "The Bull". There's Jeff Clark, Northern California's lone frontiersman, who , after discovering the massive waves of Maverick's near San Francisco, rode their alone for over a decade. And finally Hawaii's Laird Hamilton, the prototypical "extreme" surfer, a rare breed of athlete/innovator considered the best big wave rider who ever waxed a board.
Through a fast-paced combination of mediums that include classic archival photography, spectacular movie footage - both current and vintage - and contemporary interviews with the sport's greatest surfers, experts and storytellers, Riding Giants captures the rich visual history of one of the most dramatic athletic adventures of our time.
To surf, or not to surf, that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in spirit to suffer the lulls and swells of unpredictable nature, or to take matters into ones own hands by adapting to overcome them?
Yes, I am aware that I just mangled William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' in the most cliche of manners, but the themes of the great bard are a great way to introduce a great film, no matter how unrelated it may be, as is the case with 'Riding Giants.' In one night, my opinion on a film I had never seen was cemented to the point that I felt 'Riding Giants' is to documentaries as Shakespeare is to literature: Essential. Quintessential. Intelligent and layered beyond comprehension. It's somewhat ironic, in a sense, that a film about surfing can be so smart, considering the stereotype associated with the participants and the lifestyle.
'Riding Giants' is a thorough journey through the history of surfing (without stops or references to the Beach Boys or 'Point Break'), from the roots of the activity before the 20th century (in 2 minutes or less, the film promises), to modern surfing using technology to do what was once unimaginable. From Hawaii to northern California, and back to Hawaii again (before a brief stop in Tahiti), 'Riding Giants' covers the giants of the activity, the men and women who dedicated their lives to navigating the sea on a mere plank. Greg Noll, Jeff Clark, and Laird Hamilton are featured in the broader segments of their eras, as no stone is left unturned (or should I say, no wave left unridden) in this examination of all things surf, from the beginnings of the beach bum lifestyle, to the professional athlete, and all the music, movies, and magazines that helped bring surfing to the mainstream.
Going into 'Riding Giants' with no idea what I was in for, I was left utterly blown away. I felt like one of the many surfers who wiped out and got sucked beneath a wave, struggling to get up for air. It was intoxicating how deep a film on a subject I had zero interest in could grab me, how fast the run time could fly by, and how much information could be presented that one could suck up like a sponge. The analogies and conclusions the surfers (and oceanographers and writers) came to felt from their hearts, yet were beyond deep. They not only tell a story like a veteran who has nothing but stories to live off of, but they explain their feelings and thoughts in manners other than just sheer step by step process. They put their hearts and souls into their surfing, and to hear them discuss their pasts (and present) was like listening to a tale told by one's grandparents, only perhaps more interesting.
Much like the classic days of baseball, full of legend and (formerly) unbreakable records being demystified by modern stars who abuse steroids to taint the purity of the game, the look at how the times have changed due to technology is a big focus of 'Riding Giants.' The funny thing is, the old timers, the veterans and pioneers, don't look down on the feats being accomplished by the new generations of surfers. They look on in marvel. They don't feel cheated. They love their fellow surfers like a family.
Like a history lesson on fast forward, we aren't given too much time with each participant, as the events roll on, as there are many centuries of change to be covered in just under two hours. Legends and myths are explained, fallen comrades are given tribute, and memorable rides and iconic images revisited. This documentary has it all, save for bringing the participants together to rekindle their memories and imaginations.
Documentaries are supposed to be informative, in depth, and unbiased. They're supposed to educate, possibly even inspire. With 'Riding Giants,' a documentary becomes an examination of a lifestyle, and an engrossing experience, rather than just a documentation of events. I may never surf, but having seen 'Riding Giants,' I can't say that I haven't experienced something special in the sport/lifestyle.
The video aspects of 'Riding Giants' aren't exactly what one would consider a prime suspect for a superb video upgrade. The 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer afforded the film does what it can, and does its best.
The film is comprised of a wide array of footage, most of which is in less than pristine condition. The varying film stocks creates a mish-mashed video effect, with numerous technical aspects bouncing off the walls like a tweaker in a padded room. White levels, black levels, contrast, grain levels, accuracy in colors, and especially wear and tear (cleanliness included) in the print are impossible to keep track of, as they never stay constant. Modern interview footage has a hot appearance with an excessive amount of grain that detracts from detail levels. Digital noise isn't often a concern, but it pops up from time to time. Artifacting and banding aren't so much an issue, though it's hard to fault some of the footage in the film for extreme crushing and macroblocking. Do not go into this film expecting a clean, pristine image. Go into it expecting a gritty, rough ride, and keep in mind the times being shown as the video stock changes, as it is a nice bit of ever-changing history.
An English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is the only audio option afforded 'Riding Giants,' while two English and a Hindi subtitle tracks limit the amount of potential customers the title can relate to. Being that the program is culled from interviews, vintage photographs and videos of varying age, the audio aspect of the film isn't exactly given an ideal situation to strive in. Far from it. That said, there are some viable moments that let the lossless audio shine, even if they're few and far between.
Most of the footage in the film is aged, or less than ideal, so the audio stays in the front channels. The fact that there is any audio at all to some of this footage is hardly worth scoffing over! The newer the footage, the more likely it is to break the wall and have a hearty bass level and some rear activity, where waves crash wonderfully, putting you right in the ocean alongside the surfers. Bass presence is light, as it starts out powerful, and then vanishes for a prolonged period of time, before re-emerging slowly, burgeoning. The ever changing soundtrack (which ranges from classics like Misirlou by Dick Dale to more modern music from Linkin Park, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Moby) hits the rears at every moment it plays, nicely filling the room. The biggest problem with this release in the audio side of the game, beyond the restrictions in the material, is the fact that the narration is often incredibly soft and wimpy, especially when compared to the waves crashing behind. It finds itself easily overwhelmed on occasion, still audible, but just a whimper in the wind.
Not everyone will get to ride their own giant waves, but everyone can live vicariously through the pioneers of surfing as they recount their tales of riding giants. A documentary that is not to be missed, regardless of one's interest level in surfing, 'Riding Giants' is superb filmmaking, full of human interest and introspective intelligence. The Blu-ray release of the film doesn't have much to work with, but it gives it its all. It's easy to recommend 'Riding Giants,' no matter how it looks or sounds, and that's just what I'm doing. A newfound respect for an entire culture can be found in just two hours that seem to fly by like twenty minutes.