After sitting through last year's mediocre Step Into Liquid, you might suspect that another surfing documentary would be largely superfluous. Guess again, dude. Superior in every way to that impassioned but unconvincing seaside polemic, Riding Giants preaches the significance of big-wave surfing in an assured voice that reverberates far beyond the ranks of the converted.
Opening a treasure chest of vintage clips, filmmaker Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys) shows how the once-obscure pastime or, as its adherents would prefer, way of life exploded from a 5,000-person pursuit to a 3 million-strong movement within a few short years in the early 1960s. Charming footage of early expeditions to Hawaii's Waimea Bay and California's Mavericks is intercut with the modern-day reminiscences of surfing pioneers like Greg Noll whose blunt assessments of the lifestyle's pleasures and nuisances torpedo the image of surfers as perpetually impressed cosmic cadets.
Nearly every surfer who gets a name check, come to think of it, is tagged a "pioneer" or a "legend" in Peralta's script, but the exhaustive research that's on display makes the plaudits seem earned rather than indiscriminate. And though the first quarter or so of the film relies too heavily on the dreaded shaky-camera technique (perhaps in an attempt to make some naturally jumpy found footage mesh with the new stuff), the visual storytelling soon simmers down into a kinetic but tasteful style that conveys the excitement of surfing even when nobody on the screen is hitting the waves. (Editor Paul Crowder's transitions from action scenes to talking-head shots to animation are all world-class.)
As the doc's chronology advances, we learn of the impact that specific forces both societal and from within the surfing world itself have had on the big-wave school's development. Some of the trend analysis seems labored and redundant, raising the danger that Peralta's audience will tune out before his waterlogged white paper is complete. The film would have worked just as well with 15 minutes or so pruned but not from the profiles of current luminaries like Laird Hamilton, whose complicated life affords all the grandeur of a Greek legend. The boundless drama and emotion of Riding Giants are what separate it from an average ESPN wannabe; even through the occasional leaden homily ("Those guys came to surf"), you don't doubt the experts' testimony that surfing is a transfixing experience whether or not you come away with any interest in partaking of it yourself. Kowabunga.