In Review – The Ultimate Wave Tahiti

Although the surfing and science film The Ultimate Wave Tahiti has already made the transition to Blu-ray and DVD, you can still catch the wave in some IMAX theatres. I recently saw the movie at TELUS World of Science in Edmonton, where it is currently playing.

Typical of IMAX films, The Ultimate Wave features awe-inspiring cinematography and exhilarating action. The camera glides along mountain peaks, soars over and around ocean waves, reveals nature’s diversity within the coral reef, and portrays the skill and athleticism of highly accomplished surfers as they take on the legendary waves at Teahupo?o in Tahiti.

Filmed on location in Tahiti and its neighbouring islands, the film is informative as well as entertaining, detailing the volcanic formation of the islands, the dynamics of ocean waves, and the development of the coral reefs that make Tahiti a surfer’s paradise.

Although surfers are drawn to the location, the film also demonstrates the dark side of the massive waves off the coast. The coral reefs have sunk many boats and ships, claiming an untold number of lives along Tahiti’s shores. To drive the point home, we are shown the haunting images of wrecks scattered across the ocean floor surrounding the island. Even surfers themselves are in danger of being pinned under the water until they drown, or getting slammed against the jagged coral reef?although no doubt this knowledge only adds to the adrenaline rush that lures surfers to the island.

However, one element of the film that does definitely not excite is the tedious and occasionally heavy-handed product placement that appears throughout. One shot that lingers on the hood of a Suzuki vehicle, for example, is far from subtle. I couldn’t help wondering whether the film’s token global warming message would have been stronger if an automobile manufacturer had not been a major sponsor.

There are other problems. The film also features two surfers, Raimana Van Bastolaer (described on the film’s website as a ?Tahitian surfing legend?) and world surfing champion Kelly Slater. Van Bastolaer watches for the signs that will herald the arrival of the big Teahupo?o waves, and, when the time is right, summons the world’s best surfers to the island. Van Bastolaer is strongly connected to nature, to the island, and to his family. But when he talks of the island’s mythology, his words, along with displays of traditional Tahitian dances and images of primitive masks, give the viewer a sense that the island’s culture is steeped in superstition. And although surfing is an ancient Polynesian art, Van Bastolaer has grown older and flabby; the pinnacle of surfing prowess belongs to a non-native.

In contrast to the somewhat out-of-shape Polynesian who talks about legend and mythology, the super-fit and award-winning Kelly Slater is the one who (briefly) makes reference to global warming and the possible death of the coral reef. (We can only wonder whether Van Bastolaer has an opinion on the subject.) As a result, Slater is not only associated with the competitive edge and international success, but also with scientific knowledge and environmental awareness.

The two surfers are presented as comrades. Yet even if unintentional, the film’s contrast between Van Bastolaer?the older, perhaps spiritual practitioner of the ancient Polynesian art of surfing?and the white super-athlete outsider is disturbing. It’s telling that although the movie might try to treat the two surfers as equals, the film’s advertisement outside the TELUS World of Science only features Slater. The depiction of Van Bastolaer comes across as the stereotype of the mystical native elder. Slater, meanwhile, reminded me of Old Shatterhand from the Karl May novels of more than a century ago: like May’s fictional European character among North American natives, Slater appears to outdo the native Polynesians in performing their own traditional skills.

Yet, in spite of its watered-down environmental message, an almost painful use of product placement, and the manner in which the two principal surfers are presented, The Ultimate Wave Tahiti is in many respects a good film. It offers great cinematography, easy-to-grasp explanations of natural processes, and an engaging portrayal of a surfing adventure. Caveats aside, it is a worthwhile learning experience and thrilling entertainment that will appeal to the entire family.

The Ultimate Wave Tahiti is playing in several other IMAX venues across Canada, some for a limited time. For locations, check the film’s theatre listings page.