In 2003, Dana Brown (son of Bruce "Endless Summer" Brown) reset the bar for surfing documentaries with Step Into Liquid, a memorable big-screen surfing magazine with breathtaking images, involving stories, and a resolute understanding for the passion which drives surfers. 2004 finds Stacy Peralta take to the waves with Riding Giants, his follow-up to his labor-of-love Dogtown and Z-Boys, which detailed the concrete surfers of skateboarding.
Riding Giants gives a brief history of surfing ("1500 years of surfing in two minutes or less," claims a title card), then focuses on the world of big-wave surfing. Aside from quick shoutouts to other notables, Peralta boils down big-wave surfing to a handful of key locations (including Waimea Bay off Oahu, Hawaii's North Shore; Mavericks, located one-half mile off the coast of Half Moon Bay, California; Peahi, off Maui's North Shore; and Teahupoo, Tahiti).
Each site is home to a surfing superhero, each arguably more remarkable than the last: Greg Noll, the first surfing star and entrepeneur, commanded Waimea; Jeff Clark laid claim to Mavericks; Laird Hamilton worked Peahi and Teahupoo. Likewise, each place hosts at least one seminal moment in the modern history of big-wave surfing, be it a monumental wave, a turning point in the surf world's focus, or a tragic death which temporarily harshes the surfers' vibe before they go back to risking life and limb.
Peralta convincingly and economically connects his dots, from the sport's centuries-old Polynesian origins to its cresting popularity in the '50s (surfing history is purportedly told in pre-Gidget and post-Gidget terms, referring to the 1959 Hollywood beach bunny smash) to the competitive daredevils of today's surf ethos. Peralta paints the sport as spiritual and communal, the surfers as a protective, loving brotherhood and sisterhood of crazy-like-a-fox day-seizers. He films and edits in a style akin to Dogtown and Z-Boys (heavy on jaw-dropping stunts and black-and-white talking heads), while the surfers tell their stories and attempt to describe the ineffable.
Peralta's co-writer, Surfer magazine editor Sam George, offers the most wide-eyed breathless comments, while the no-nonsense Noll makes even his occasional B.S. sound like straight talk. Even screenwriter John Milius (Conan the Barbarian and, of course, surf pic Big Wednesday) brings his gruff twinkle to the table. Surfing, it seems, is a divine madness, a little more deadly than most passions but all the more potent for it. With Riding Giants, Peralta gives voice to generations of those happy lunatics and frequently clears his frame for transcendent, miraculous meetings of man and nature.