Hollywood loves surfing. They always have. After all, what’s not to like? Tan, fit social rebels who spend their time getting wet in beautiful places wearing very little clothing—that’s literally the premise for half the movies on the silver screen.
But do surfers love Hollywood? Have we been treated fairly by Tinseltown? Despite the industry’s best intentions—at times even recruiting actual surfers as actors and consultants to try to harness a bit of authenticity—movies about surfing tend to take a beating when it comes to the core demographic. Some of them are technically box office successes, others fall flat on their faces, but either way they all seem to push cheesy stereotypes and ultimately let the surf community down.
The funny thing is that as much as we critique the hell out of these movies when they first come out, they tend to age well, some eventually becoming cult classics. Sure, their surf sequences are all wrong and their storylines suck, but after a decade or two, we actually begin to look forward to watching these horrible films over and over again.
With two new Hollywood films scheduled to try on surfing over the summer (the trailer for the new Jurassic Park, see above, flick shows some sort of sea monster about to snatch an unknown charger from the face of a bomb set at Jaws, and the poster for The Meg shows something very similar), we thought this was the perfect time to wax nostalgic about some of our all-time favourite surf flicks—the ones we love and the ones we love to hate.
The original “beach party” film, and considered by many to be the starting point for the commercialisation of the surf lifestyle, 1959’s Gidget brought surfing to the masses in about the most romanticised package you can imagine.
Sandra Dee played the title character in a story about a teenage girl’s initiation into 1950s California surf culture, and her romantic escapades with lead males Moondoggie and the Kahuna. It was classic Hollywood surf cheese before there ever was such a thing, making this film obligatory screening for anyone who wants to see how surfing became a mainstream, multi-billion dollar industry—or who simply owns a board and a Netflix account.
Another generation-defining coming-of-age film disguised as a surf flick, Big Wednesday is set during the Vietnam War, and follows the lives of three friends and surf buddies. From dodging the draft and losing a friend in Vietnam to transitioning into adulthood and reuniting for the “Great Swell of 1974,” the film chronicles a generation of upheaval and social angst from the perspective of wave riders—which, at the time, were still somewhat of a rebellious counterculture.
Although the film flopped in the box office and received rather lukewarm critical response, it had a lot of big names behind it, including actor Gary Busey, director John Milius, and surfer/musician/journalist Dennis Aaberg, who grew up surfing with Milius in Malibu. It even inspired a real-life surf industry legal battle after stunt double Billy Hamilton started shaping under the Bear label (adopted from the film), only to be sued by Milius.
This cult classic is proof that having a bunch of surfers act in a surf movie doesn’t make it good—and that a movie doesn’t have to be good to become a cultural treasure. North Shore follows Arizona wave pool champion (in 1987—31 years before the Founder’s Cup!) Rick Kane to the North Shore of Oahu, where he realises that he can’t actually surf in the ocean.
Between meeting pro surfers Alex (Robbie Page) and Mark (Occhilupo), developing a rivalry with arrogant sell-out Lance Burkhart (Laird Hamilton), being mentored and befriended by soul surfer/shaping guru Chandler and his goofy sidekick Turtle, and developing a romance with the cousin of the leader of “The Hui” (Gerry Lopez), Rick experiences just about every North Shore cliché you can imagine before inexplicably competing in the finals at what is essentially a bastardised version of the Pipe Masters.
Also featuring Shaun Tomson, Mark Foo, Derek Ho, Ken Bradshaw, Hans Hedeman, Corky Carrol, and even Christian Fletcher, North Shore is everyone’s favorite Hollywood surfing disaster. It even spawned a copycat animated blockbuster in Surf’s Up, which is essentially the same story, except with penguins, a chicken named Joe, Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, and Sal Masekala.
Everyone’s other favorite surfing cult classic, 1991’s Point Break (not the blasphemous reboot from 2015) follows former college football star turned FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) as he infiltrates a gang of surfing bank robbers led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). After a couple of kooky attempts at longboarding, Utah appears to learn to surf faster than anyone in history, graduating to a night-surf shred fest at an overhead beach break in less time than it takes most people to wax a new board.
Meanwhile, Gary Busey (yep, he’s in this one too—not surprising, since he’s one of Hollywood’s favorite actor/surfers) plays FBI veteran Angelo Pappas, who makes inane surfing references; Anthony Kiedis (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) kicks Utah’s ass; Utah hooks up with Bodhi’s ex, who also happens to be the most annoying surfer of all time; and no one seems to know if they are goofy or regular-footed, since the film crew basically just edits a bunch of random footage together with no respect for the reality of wave riding.
The film ends with Utah allowing Bodhi to evade arrest and paddle out as the 50-year storm creates the biggest surf in history at Bells Beach (of all places), where he presumably ends up drowning while doing what he loves. “Via con Dios,” Bodhi. The ostensible moral of this infinitely quotable abomination? “Surfing is the source…it can change your life. Swear to god.”
The Dishonourable Mentions
While there have been dozens of other attempts by Hollywood to portray the surfing lifestyle (Google search “skeet surfing Top Secret” if you find yourself wallowing in ennui), most have been so bad that they've failed to garner even a cult following.
In God’s Hands was a lesson in how painful it is to watch your heroes take themselves seriously (it featured Shane Dorian, Matty Liu, Matt George [who also wrote the film], and a whole slew of other surfer/“actors”); Surf Nazis Must Die and Surf Ninjas were equally horrendous (even if the latter featured Mikala Jones as a stunt double); the high point of Blue Crush was when the producers convinced Noah Johnson to surf Pipeline in a bikini and a wig.
The reality is that surf films have never really belonged to us—they are the contrived, confused, sometimes comedic attempts of corporate kooks to understand and depict our culture.
Surf videos, on the other hand—those have always been ours. The characters are familiar, the surfing’s legit, the acting is just as bad as anything Hollywood can dream up (especially when Taylor Steele is directing), and we wouldn’t expect anything less. What more can you ask for?