Point Break: Movie Surfing is Never Safe
...surfing continues to have a powerful and mysterious allure.
Like the original Point Break, the remake plunges viewers deep into the world of adrenalin junkies: chronic risk-takers who feel alive only when flirting with death. The 1991 original devoted most of its running time to surfing, but lead characters Bodhi and Johnny Utah also found time for skydiving and robbery. In the 2015 Point Break, these characters try their hand at a wider array of life-threatening activities — including wingsuit flying, free solo climbing, and daredevil snowboarding — but surfing is still the main attraction.
Even after 50 years of movies that make the dangers abundantly clear, surfing continues to have a powerful and mysterious allure. While this sport is also known for its meditative, idyllic, even spiritual dimension, the risks are inescapable. For a hint of just how dangerous the waves can be, look no further than these 10 memorably unsafe surfing movies.
The Endless Summer
Arguably the first great surfing documentary, this 1966 classic follows surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August as they follow the summer around the world. While the general mood is pleasantly carefree, an ominous feeling kicks in as we watch surfers get throttled by the colossal waves at Hawaii’s Waimea Bay. According to director/narrator Bruce Brown, a surfboard hurled by one of these waves has enough force to cut a surfer in half.
Degree of danger: 8/10
Thirty-eight years after Endless Summer, Waimea Bay was given closer consideration in this 2004 documentary about big-wave surfing. Riding Giants highlights the innovations that have allowed surfers like Laird Hamilton to ride 21-metre waves. In his world, casualties aren’t just a risk — they’re a reality.
Degree of danger: 9/10
A seasoned surfer in his own right, writer-director John Milius drew on personal experience for this overlooked coming-of-age gem. In the finale of the1978 film, our three heroes reunite for “The Great Swell,” a day of unparalleled big-wave danger. As sirens blare, rescue helicopters hover above, and broken boards fly in every direction, character Matt Johnson suffers a vicious wipeout that might be his last. Degree of danger: 8/10
A year after Big Wednesday, Milius helped bring dangerous movie surfing to new heights with the script for the ultimate Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. In one of the 1979 film’s most surreal and disturbing sequences, Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) realizes he’s in the presence of noted surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms). Even with bombs exploding in every direction, he insists it’s time to hang ten.
Degree of danger: 10/10
Four years before Halloween made director John Carpenter a horror legend, he made this 1974 micro-budget comedy about the tedium of life in space. In a moment of reflection, an astronaut known as Doolittle (Brian Narelle) realizes he desperately misses the Malibu surf. When a temperamental bomb detonates itself and destroys his spaceship, Doolittle grabs a piece of debris and spends his final moments surfing in the stars.
Degree of danger: 7/10
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
You may remember Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) emerging from a day of massive waves with a trophy in his hand and two bikini-clad women by his side. Sadly, that triumph was just a dream in this 1982 comedy. The closest Spicoli comes to real danger is when he gets a double cheese and sausage pizza delivered to Mr. Hand’s (Ray Walston) class.
Degree of danger: 5/10
In an effort to demonstrate that the young people of 1964 are feeble-minded and primate-like, Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn) sends his chimp, Clyde, to catch some waves. This isn’t especially dangerous, but Clyde executes several bold manoeuvres, including a handstand and a 360.
Degree of danger: 4/10
Surf Nazis Must Die
A rare surfing movie drowning in bad vibes, this is the gritty 1987 story of a violent gang that takes over the beaches of California after a disastrous earthquake. Even a group of ninja surfers armed with nunchuks aren’t safe from the title characters’ irrational violence. However, their reign of terror comes to an abrupt end when one victim’s mother fights back with an unlikely weapon: a speedboat.
Degree of danger: 9/10
A case could be made that the most dangerous surfing in this 1993 movie is the “moto-surfing” that characters Johnny and Adam do in their friend Iggy’s convertible. The actual waves they encounter are relatively mild, but they do unknowingly knock out an antagonistic ninja while riding a wave.
Degree of danger: 6/10
Point Break (1991)
When Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) runs out of options in the original Point Break, he finds himself reunited with Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) on a beach during one of the worst storms in Australian history. Forced to decide between jail time and a once-in-a-lifetime wave — guaranteed to be his last — Bodhi begs Utah to let him take the latter. It’s an appropriately extreme demise, one that reminds us never to underestimate the forces of nature.
Degree of danger: 10/10
Jonathan Doyle writes about movies for Comedy, The Loop, and Space.