Some documentaries are so flat-out amazingly good that they draw you in and simply make you fascinated by the subject, regardless of whether or not you had any knowledge or interest in the material beforehand. Riding Giants is one of those. This film takes viewers on an amazing trip through the history and culture of big-wave surfing, and even if you never gave surfing a second thought before, you'll be hooked as soon as you sit down to watch this film.
Riding Giants is brilliantly put together from the very beginning. For one thing, it's quite clear that director Stacy Peralta has a very clear idea of what the focus of Riding Giants is, and every element of the film works together smoothly to that end. As the title suggests, the central theme of the documentary is not just surfing in general, but surfing the biggest waves: the giant waves of places like Waimea Bay in Hawaii and Maverick's in northern California, waves that were once thought to be unrideable.
But while riding the giant waves is at the heart of the film, Riding Giants doesn't jump headlong into the topic. Instead, the film follows a deftly crafted chronological structure, introducing us to the origins and development of surfing culture: from its early 20th-century reinvention as a sport in Hawaii, to its position as a counter-culture option for disaffected young people, to its sudden boom in popularity and its growth to the present day. It becomes clear that part of the development of surfing from the very beginning has been the quest for new, exciting breaks to surf and ever-tougher waves to ride. By the time we see surfers like Greg Noll taking on true big-wave challenges, we understand the context, and appreciate the daring (or foolhardiness) of the big-wave pioneers.
Riding Giants shifts its attention back and forth between the surf scene in Hawaii and in California, giving viewers a chance to see how the surfing culture grew and developed differently in each location. Again, this context makes it all the more fascinating when we learn about milestones like Jeff Clark's discovery of the unique big-wave break at Maverick's in northern California, which he surfed alone for fifteen years before it finally came to the attention of the "big names" from Hawaii.
The film is as much about the individuals who take on the giant waves as it is about the culture of big-wave surfing in general, and we get to meet many of the big names of surfing and hear them tell in their own words what it is like to continually push the envelope of what's possible. Greg Noll is on one end of the spectrum, letting us see what it was like to ride the waves in the 1950s, while Laird Hamilton is at the other, using modern technology to take on big waves that would be impossible to even approach in the traditional paddle-out style. Many other surfers are interviewed as well, adding their voices to provide a fascinating commentary on the development of the sport. Riding Giants deftly provides a sense of context for each of its interview subjects, so that when we hear from someone, we know exactly who they are and what their contribution to the sport of surfing has been.
There's an amazing amount of archival material here, ranging from still photographs of early surfers on the beach, at home, or on the waves, to home-video footage capturing informal moments of surfing fun, and it's put to excellent use, giving us a window into the surfer culture of decades past. But that's far from the only material used in Riding Giants, as the documentary also works in clips from surfer movies and many, many shots of fantastic surfing, including both spectacular rides and disastrous wipe-outs.
Riding Giants has a lively, often playful style that invites the viewer to relax and have a good time with the film. The cinematography is highly energetic, using techniques like quick cuts back and forth between still pictures (giving them a sense of action), montages of short film segments of surfing action, and even speeding up or slowing down the film at times to capture the sense of busy surfers dashing toward the water, or hanging for an eternal moment on the face of the wave.
But while Riding Giants is sometimes quite irreverent when chronicling surfing's lighter moments, it slips effortlessly into a more serious tone when the material warrants. There's no question that the filmmakers, and the surfers who provide interviews, take the giant waves very seriously, especially when the film discusses the truly life-threatening waves of dangerous breaks like Maverick's.
Tying everything together is the fantastic visual and auditory experience of Riding Giants. The soundtrack uses surf-themed songs appropriate to the decade that's being presented, which gives another layer to the enjoyment of the material, and the surfing footage is simply amazing. I'm sure that surfers who watch this will be even more impressed, since they'll understand the implications of the size of these waves more fully, but even without knowing anything about surfing to begin with, it's impossible to not be impressed by the amazing footage here.
Riding Giants is presented in anamorphic widescreen, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and if there were ever a documentary that benefited from the scope of a widescreen presentation, it's this one, with its impressive shots of gigantic waves crashing into the shores. The film does an admirable job of balancing the different states of wear and tear in its material, by the interesting technique of artificially "aging" some of the modern interview footage to have a similar grainy feel as the film footage from the 1940s and 1950s. It's clear that the playful style of the cinematography extends to the presentation of the image, and the result is that the differences in the condition of the footage feel like simple changes of visual pace rather than "good" and "bad" image quality.
When it comes to recent film footage of the waves, when we no longer have issues of wear and tear involved, there's no question that the transfer quality is excellent. We get dazzling, vibrant colors, lots of crisp detail, and a generally clean and impressive image. All told, Riding Giants looks great.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack handles all the demands of the film deftly. The voices of the narrator and the interview subjects are always crisp and clear, the background music sounds great without ever intruding on the rest of the track, and the sound of the waves is captured with all its deep bass roar. The very enjoyable audio experience of Riding Giants is yet one more thing that makes this a great film.
Riding Giants boasts the "Special Edition" label and earns it. First off, there are two audio commentaries. The first one, with director Stacy Peralta and editor Paul Crowder, focuses on the making of the film, while the second, with co-writer Sam George and surfers Greg Noll, Jeff Clark, and Laird Hamilton, focuses on recounting more details and anecdotes about surfing the big waves and the history of the sport. They both offer interesting material for fans of the film, and complement each other well without overlapping in content.
A 27-minute documentary called "The Making of Riding Giants" is reasonably interesting. It has somewhat of a promotional slant, with liberal use of clips from the film, but it also presents some interesting interviews with various people involved behind the scenes in bringing Riding Giants to life. We also hear more from some of the surfers profiled in the film. "Fuel TV's Blue Carpet Special" is unabashedly promotional, as this 20-minute segment gives some information about the film on the scene of the Sundance Film Festival. There are some additional interviews tucked in here. Two short promotional segments (for Milan Records and Quicksilver) are also included.
The deleted scenes are certainly worth watching. There's fifteen minutes of material here, in five separate scenes (with a play all feature). One nice touch is that the scenes are prefaced with text screens explaining the context of the scene and why it was cut from the final film.
Finally, we get a set of previews for Riding Giants and other films. The trailers for Ride the Wild Surf and Gidget Goes Hawaiian are entertaining to watch since they're referenced in the film itself; we also get trailers for Dogtown and Z-Boys, The Fifth Element, The Forgotten, and Godzilla Millenium.
I thought for quite a while before deciding on the full five stars for Riding Giants, but when it came down to it, that's what the film deserves. It's a knockout documentary, one that gets everything right, from pacing and structure to content and style. What's perhaps most impressive is how it transcends its niche audience and makes the subject of big-wave surfing both accessible and fascinating for non-surfers as well as surfers. With its great video and audio quality and nice set of special features, Riding Giants is my what-a-pleasant-surprise addition to the DVD Talk Collector Series.