The Inertia

“Before you can surf, you must suffer,” is one of the quotes from the new Nicolas Cage film The Surfer. Though it might be said that, “While you watch a Hollywood surf movie, you must suffer.”

Now, Hollywood tends to make three types of surf films. A minuscule percentage that are so good they are good (Big Wednesday, Surf’s Up and, uhm that’s about it). The overwhelming majority that are so bad they are just bad. And then there is the Holy Grail; the surf films so bad, they’re good (In God’s Hands, North Shore)

It’s hard to gauge just where Cage’s The Surfer might fit in. Some statisticians have recorded that this is Cage’s 117th film. Suffice it to say, that not all have been masterpieces. It was the television series Community, and its character Abed, who probably summed up his prolific output best: “He’s a complex performer. He’ll give you The Rock, Con Air, then Face Off, and you think you understand, but then Windtalkers, Guarding Tess, The Wicker Man. He begs you to stop watching, but you can’t.”

In The Surfer, a low-budget thriller, Cage is an office drone who must suffer the machismo of an Australian coastal town as he tries to head off a mid-life crisis by becoming a big wave rider. This might sound a little far-fetched until you recall that in Surfer, Dude Matthew McConaughey played a surfer who experiences an existential crisis when no waves come for over a month. At the time, SURFER’s Rob Gilley called it, “A true turd in the toilet bowl that is Hollywood surf cinema.” 

But The Surfer could well be a different beast. The movie, in one write-up, was said to have crash landed at the Cannes Film Festival like a wild-eyed, brawling drunk. The Guardian called it “a low-budget, hard-hitting comic bruiser of a picture: a midlife-crisis movie dressed up as a 1970s exploitation flick.”  Which was better than the esteemed surf historian Matt Warshaw’s take on In God’s Hands. “It shot for deeply profound territory and came up so amazingly short that it was an epic fail.” To his credit the writer of the film, Matt George, owned that failure and in 2020 said he now thinks of it as a 10-million-dollar disaster movie. At the very least you have to give credit to any film that can destroy the credibility of Shane Dorian, surfing’s most credible man.   

Another positive in The Surfers’ favor is its Australian setting. Some of the better mainstream movies centered on surfing have been set Down Under. Breath, based on the novel by Tim Winton, and directed by the famed actor (and surfer) Simon Baker, had a weighted average score of 71 out of 100 on Metacritic, indicating “generally favorable reviews.” And as a fun fact, ex-pro Jodie Cooper was the film’s head of props. 

However, if you look at the list of mainstream movies (which I’ve had a rough stab at collating below), it doesn’t make for excellent reading. Now the relationship between surfing and cinema goes back as far as 1906, when Thomas Edison filmed surfing at Waikiki. Maybe even Edison knew that the sport’s cultural nuances were unable to be captured effectively. He would move on to much easier subjects like inventing the lightbulb, carbon button transmitters, commercial power stations and the phonograph.

In the intervening 120 years, his kinematograph and kinetoscope technology have largely been wasted when directors have tried to portray surfing in any meaningful narrative. What about Point Break, you may ask? It may be the best example of the clutch of cliched movies portraying surfers as risk-addicted morons, but it isn’t exactly a high bar. 

Whether Cage can bring the canon’s mean average up, or drag it down, remains to be seen. The history of mainstream surf movies isn’t a particularly good one, but now and again, a diamond appears in the rough. The UK surf movie Blue Juice, with a debut by Catherine Zeta-Jones, serves as an example worth tracking down.  

In this latest attempt, the opening dialogue sees Cage talking to his estranged, unresponsive son: “You can’t stop a wave. It’s pure energy. Born in a storm, way out to sea, brewing and churning for days, weeks, months, sometimes even years. It’s all building to this breaking point: a short, sharp shock of violence on the shore. And you either surf it, or you get wiped out.” He then added, “That was my best surfing-as-a-metaphor-for-life speech, I was hoping for a little more enthusiasm.”

Given the history, that may be a little too much to ask. 

A Quick List of Mainstream Surf Movies

Gidget (1959)

Big Wednesday (1978)

North Shore (1987)

Red Surf (1989)

Point Break (1991)

Blue Juice (1995) 

In God’s Hands (1998)

Blue Crush (2002)

Liquid Bridge (2003)

Lords of Dogtown (2005)

Surf School (2006)

Surf’s Up (2007)

Shelter (2007)

Surfer, Dude (2008)

Soul Surfer (2011)

Blue Crush 2 (2011)

Beautiful Wave (2011)

Chasing Maverick’s (2012)

Drift (2013)

Point Break (2015)

The Shallows (2016)

Breath (2018)


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