In the early 1950s, 1,500 years after surfing's birth in ancient Polynesia, a group of boys from California's burgeoning surf community left for Hawaii, lured by a magical AP photo of three men shooting down the face of a Mahaka wave of unimaginable power. The minor exodus marked the beginning of the modern history of big-wave surfing, the subject of Stacy Peralta's reverent documentary Riding Giants. Always in pursuit of bigger and bolder swells and increasingly life-threatening wave scales, the frontier spirit of big-wave surfers is to push the limits of the sport further and further and, like the skateboarders in Peralta's well-received previous effort, Dogtown and Z Boys, film it the whole time. The rides that make it into this historical survey, which opened the Sundance Film Festival, are therefore the boldest and bravest of their respective times, and at all points carry the substantial tension of real risk. Therein lies the most fascinating aspect of the surfing documentary, of which there have been several more or less diligent examples in theatrical release over the last couple of years, Riding Giants being the best: There aren't many documentary subjects in general that can exploit so much extemporaneous, first-hand footage of people doing things that have never been done before, especially when "never been done before" translates to "very high risk of death." Those who sense even minimal intrigue in the sport itself will find this documentary captivating, as the impassioned, death-defying athletes featured in the film present an image of big-wave surfing as equal parts physical challenge and metaphysical discipline, where nature is the cherished and honored teacher and the very meaning of life reveals itself in the cascading torrents of salt water.

The film begins with a short chronicle of surfing's Polynesian roots, and jumps towards the present with the sport's rediscovery in the 1940s along California's southern coast. The best section of the film follows, with a recounting of the nascent big-wave culture of 1950s Hawaii that arose after the release of the famous photo of the Mahaka surfers in 1953. Along the unspoiled coastline, a small handful of stoic outsiders forged a truly unique synthesis of courageous athleticism and traditional Hawaiian spirituality that had at its core a true reverence for the sea and an embracing of the transience of life. The boys live a bohemian dream, passing their days surfing, fishing, stealing chickens and pineapples from nearby farms, and communing with the ocean and with one another. Luckily for us, they had the presence of mind to bring a camera, and capture some of the most audacious rides of the period, as they pushed deeper and deeper into the "unridden realm" of Hawaii's pristine North Coast.

There are a number of beautiful shots of the swells, and later footage using telephoto lenses makes you feel as though you were inside the curling lip of the waves along with the surfers themselves. One of the movie's strongest moments is the retelling of one surfer's ride on "the biggest wave ever surfed," an agitated break in Tahiti that smashes down almost vertically onto a sharp coral reef. Sure enough, the ride is there on film, incontrovertible proof of the wave's power and the rider's courage and athletic cunning. There is no "fish that got away," no "you had to be there." These moments are the stuff of legends, but accessible to all. Likewise is the case for a much sadder moment, in which we watch, in slow motion, the quiet death of Mark Foo, one of the all-time big-wave surfing greats, at the hands of an average wave. One moment he's there, the next he's not.

If the film's narration is at times less than enthralling, it is more than made up for by the surfers themselves, who in interviews betray their indelible fascination with the sport with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm they had when they first tackled the swells some 50 years ago. There are a number of intriguing personalities interviewed here, including living legends Greg "The Bull" Noll and Laird Hamilton. Separated by a generation, the two are generally regarded as the greatest big-wave surfers of all time. Hamilton's superhuman physical presence and utter disregard for mortality make him a true icon and point to what makes surfing resonate as something much more than a stoner pastime or spectator sport, raising it to a level of genuine religious inquiry--a notion inherent in the fascinating story of Jeff Clark, who "discovered" and surfed the gigantic Mavericks break in Northern California all by himself for 15 years, because no one was willing to risk it with him. His description of paddling out the 45 minutes towards a wave that he was unsure that anybody could attempt is baffling, and functions as the centerpiece of an underlying allegory that anchors the film. Certainly, for those of us more familiar with the diverse anxieties of urban life than the crushing weight of 60-foot waves, there is an understandable allure in the focus required to face such a powerful force of nature mano-a-mano. One big-wave surfer, also a physician, sums it up perfectly at the film's conclusion, drawing an unlikely comparison between the attitudes he's witnessed in terminal cancer patients with those of the truly intrepid big-wave surfers. The confines of a hospital bed and the humbling enormity of the open sea have this in common: Life is boiled down to its essential components, and everything unrelated to your very survival is eliminated from thought. What's left is the sweet and fundamental thrill of being alive. Some viewers may balk at the comparison, and with some justification, for while the patient is constrained to a bed, his body failing, the bronzed and careless surfer is the very definition of physical freedom. But that's precisely what makes these characters all the more compelling. They see the invitation to know the meaning of a life free from fear, and they'd rather die than not accept.

--Gabriel Cohen DeVries