From Dana Brown, the director of 'Step into Liquid,' comes 'Highwater', his latest documentary foray into the world of surfing. This time his subject is surfing's Triple Crown, a grueling trio of competitions held on the North Shore of Oahu, home to some of the biggest, most impressive, surf-friendly waves in the world. No stranger to this sort of material, Brown injects a nice level of authenticity and captures some truly stunning images of surfers doing what they do best, riding incredible wave after wave while making it all seem so easy. While these images are impressive, the documentary is not without its faults, wavering some in its execution and pacing, stemming from a scope that at times is perhaps too broad and impersonal.
Since the subject is the Triple Crown competition itself, and not any one surfer or particular competitor, the film jumps from surfer to surfer quite a bit, attempting to weave a narrative out of the contest as it does so. Interviews with some of surfing's greatest talents are on display here, including Kelly Slater and Sunny Garcia. Though the number of participants included gives the film some nice variety, it also leads to its one main fault, a lack of rhythm. The flow from one interview to the next and one aspect of the competition to the next comes off as slightly clunky during its early sections. The documentary has some trouble finding a natural pace, and at its worst, can come off as nothing more than a simple play-by-play of the tournament. Not enough time is spent with many of the surfers interviewed to really delve into specifics or find an emotional core. Various topics within the surf world are touched upon, but one gets the sense that we're merely scratching the surface. Thankfully though, as the competition heats up, and the film rides along, a nice tempo is finally found.
About halfway through the film, 'Highwater' starts to ease into itself, and what once was a somewhat disconnected series of talking head interviews and gorgeous surfing footage, becomes a more striking portrait of a place, a culture, some big waves, and the men and women brave enough to surf them. More time is spent with individual surfers and on particular stories within the larger competition arc, which offers actual substance to latch onto. An emotional heart is found, leading to some moving footage, including a particularly touching segment showing how the surfers come together to honor one of their own whose life was tragically cut short by the waves of the North Shore. Also of particular emotional weight is a segment which shows how a paraplegic surfer finds a way to once again strap on his board and take to the sea. These segments exemplify a powerful camaraderie and kinship between the surfers which adds another level to the core of the documentary.
Along with these emotional stories, some lively energy is injected in the form of enigmatic surfer Eric Haas. Spoken about like some sort of mythical figure by his peers, Haas is legendary for his unorthodox surfing style and eccentric behavior. The wild and humorous stories shared about Haas make him sound like surfing's very own mixture of Jack Bauer, Chuck Norris, and the Dos Equis 'Most Interesting Man in the World.' In fact, these brief detours into Hass' mystique made me long for a full documentary with him as the subject.
In the end, 'Highwater' is a slightly uneven but interesting peek into a grueling surf competition and a fascinating lifestyle. Choosing to break up its focus across multiple surfers instead of following just one or a small group's personal journey through the competition, may have led to some early pacing issues and lack of emotion, but like the surfers showcased here, the film eventually finds its balance and its voice, preventing a wipe out.
Presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the video quality here is very good, but slightly erratic. Like many documentaries, footage is gathered from a variety of sources, and while there are occasional bits of low quality upscaled material, the majority is compiled from pristine HD sources.
The highlights are found in the many beautiful sequences showcasing the surfers gliding across flowing, towering waves. These look wonderful here on Blu-ray. Colors pop, with the ocean's vibrant blue practically splashing off the screen. The tropical setting of Oahu also lends itself to some pretty, vivid scenery that all sparkles with a nice, bright sheen.
Detail is good, adding some nice depth to the transfer. The bright picture handles contrast mostly well, though some of the interviews have a blown out and overexposed look to them.
While almost all of the action takes place during the day, the few shots at night do exhibit some crushed shadow detail, light blacks, and noise. Likewise, the few upscaled standard definition shots hold similar issues and artifacting.
Overall, the video is strong, especially in the surfing scenes, but some inconsistencies in the shooting methods lead to an occasionally less than stellar presentation.
The soundtrack is provided in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Like the video, the presentation is good but not quite top tier.
Dialogue is crisp and clean in both narration and interviews. Surrounds get some nice usage, especially with the film's music score. Bass has some kick to it, coming alive with the thunderous clashing of waves. Dynamic range is good and balance is spot on giving emphasis to dialogue, music, or effects when appropriate.
There are moments when the track feels truly immersive and encompassing, and likewise, others when it is merely serviceable. As a whole, even when not firing on all cylinders, the mix always serves the movie well and is technically proficient.
Supplements are all provided in standard definition (with the exception of the trailer) and stereo PCM with no subtitle options. There isn't a ton included here, but what is provided has value.
Through the Triple Crown competition, 'Highwater' attempts to encapsulate the culture of the North Shore, and shine a light on its fearless surfers. While mostly successful, the documentary takes a bit too long to find its footing and develop significant substance in its narrative. This Blu-ray disc presents the film with strong video and audio, showcasing the beautiful cinematography and lively soundtrack. The supplements are a bit slim, but will provide some nice extra footage and information for fans. It's definitely worth a look for surf enthusiasts and casual film watchers alike.