In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, filmmaker Bruce Brown made a series of popular films (‘Slippery When Wet,’ ‘Surf Crazy,’ and ‘The Endless Summer’ to name a few) which helped birth the surf culture mythos; an alluring introduction to a growing sport that captured the imagination of Kansas farm-kids and Carolina beach-bums alike. Fast forward to 1994 when his son, Dana, dove headfirst into the family business and worked with his father on ‘The Endless Summer II,’ a well received documentary about two young surfers. Almost ten years later, Dana stepped out from his father’s shadow with ‘Step Into Liquid,’ a documentary focused on twenty-first century devotees and surfers who continue to develop the sport and the lifestyle.
’Step Into Liquid’ not only marks Dana Brown’s first foray into solo filmmaking, it provides him the unique opportunity to reflect on the surfing culture explored by his father while investigating the many ways in which the sport and lifestyle have evolved over the last four decades. Moving from the towering waves of the Oahu Pipeline to the diverse international waters of Ireland, The Gulf of Mexico, Vietnam, and Easter Island, Brown eventually makes his way to the underwater mountains of Cortes Bank, home to the biggest waves in the world. Along the way, the now 44-year old filmmaker manages to pull himself away from the stunning vistas to speak with a variety of professional surfers, retired legends, and amateur thrill-seekers.
As a guy who’s never had a single desire to ride a board through anything even resembling a wave, watching a documentary about surfing wasn’t exactly something I was looking forward to. Even so, I must admit ‘Step Into Liquid’ roped me in more than I thought it could. It was quite captivating to follow a pack of everyday people who purposefully place themselves in the path of a destructive force of nature. The younger Brown succeeds in this regard, focusing more on the boardfolk who tackle killer waves, rather than on the sport itself. His candid interviews have the usual, eye-rolling collection of "whooooaa"-flavored diatribes that seem to have come straight from the mouth of Keanu Reeves himself, but Brown at least talks to surfers who have a complete understanding of their technique, a method to their madness, and the ability to fluently convey their passion to both surfers and non-surfers alike.
The problem is that Brown doesn’t do much more with ‘Step Into Liquid’ than hop from locale to locale and interview relatively conventional surfers and extreme sports enthusiasts. He paints a picture of wave-riding life rather than truly allowing non-surfers to connect to the fearlessness portrayed on the screen. It grows a bit repetitive, interrupted only by humorous interludes and frat-boy shenanigans that quickly prove a subject like surfing doesn’t have enough layers or depth to hold the attention of a guy who has no intention of riding a board. I suppose I wanted to learn something new, to see a fresh side of extreme sports enthusiasts that made me understand their need to overcome nature and risk their lives for a brief thrill. Instead, I simply met a good-natured group of people who love the ocean for reasons beyond their comprehension.
’Step Into Liquid’ is by no means a bad film or a lopsided, unapproachable documentary -- it just doesn’t have the meaty material a top-tier production of this caliber requires to pick up average-joe viewers outside of its target audience. Non-surfers won’t find much to sink their teeth into, and advanced surfers will probably yawn at Brown’s presentation of more basic information. While both groups will certainly be awestruck by the gorgeous imagery, they’ll also both agree the film is actually aimed at those who’ve dabbled with a board but haven’t committed to the lifestyle.
Like every documentary I’ve reviewed in the past, ‘Step Into Liquid’ has been compiled from a variety of sources that, at times, make the film resemble a cinematic patchwork quilt. Luckily, most of Dana Brown’s ocean photography makes the transition in stride and creates an impressive 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that looks much better than I expected.
The documentary’s sun-drenched palette and bronzed skintones look natural, bold, and stable -- the vibrant blues of the ocean are offset by deep blacks, crisp whites, and strong contrast that generates some incredibly three-dimensional photography. Detail also deserves some praise. While it’s not as consistent or sharp as the latest Hollywood blockbuster, it does manage to reveal far more than its muddled standard DVD counterpart. Just being offered the opportunity to read the print on the surfers’ clothing and gear makes it worth the upgrade. Once you factor in the countless water pellets hurling across the screen, it becomes more than clear that the film is being presented in high definition. Better still, the image is clean and unblemished -- sure, there are a few nicks and bursts of grain in the original print, but the transfer doesn’t suffer from any significant edge enhancement, artifacting, or color banding.
Does ‘Step Into Liquid’ look perfect? No, but it does manage to look quite stunning on more than one occasion. The very nature of a documentary prevents the film from living up to the standards set by recent box office hits, it looks fantastic in its own regard and should easily please both surfing and documentary fans.
’Step Into Liquid’ features a fairly successful DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track that unfortunately comes up a bit short in regards to its consistency and immersive properties. As is the case with most documentaries of its ilk, interviews sound crisp, well-prioritized, and clear, but are occasionally stifled by wind noise or other unavoidable sounds of nature. Likewise, robust LFE support makes the surfing scenes themselves sound powerful and intense, but a distinct lack of rear speaker presence (especially for a 7.1 surround track) doesn’t allow these scenes to aggressively assault the viewer. While my high hopes didn’t ruin the sonic experience altogether, I was ultimately disappointed by how often the soundfield pulled forward and anchored itself in the front channels. I always felt as if I were on the shore listening to a crashing wave rather than feeling as if I were in the middle of a raging ocean. In the end, I suppose I should congratulate Brown for avoiding the sensationalism of an artificial soundscape, but I have to question whether the resultant consequences rob the Master Audio track of its potential.
Simply put, as far as documentaries go, ‘Step Into Liquid’ definitely sounds better than average. I’ll even go so far as to say it should easily satisfy anyone approaching its inherently limited soundfield with realistic expectations. However, I really wanted to hear a hair more from each scene and found myself settling more often than not.
While Lionsgate generally offers exclusive content on all of their releases, ‘Step Into Liquid’ arrives on Blu-ray sans a few features. While all of the significant content from the 2-disc SD DVD appears on the BD, all of the content housed on that release’s second disc is gone (an interactive surfboard customizer, a surf cam feature, a Surfline “Surfing Etiquette” featurette and term glossary, a 3D tour of key locations from the film, and the full version of Activision’s “Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer” game). Thankfully, all of the content that didn’t make the cut was superficial and completely expendable, while all of the behind-the-scenes material has been successfully ported over.
’Step Into Liquid’ is definitely a niche documentary, but it handles its subject matter well and offers some outright gorgeous photography. Where this Blu-ray release excels is in its technical package. It features an excellent video transfer, an above average 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, and a slew of lengthy supplements that fill in the gaps left by the documentary. Regardless, I can’t exactly recommend this release to everyone, but I can say it’s worth a look for anyone interested in surfing, its culture, or the lifestyle.