When I pulled up to the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for the premiere of Kai Neville’s latest film, Cluster, a superstorm of hype had encircled the venue. The line outside weaved down the block and was peppered with surf stars, L.A. scenesters, and girls you probably know from Instagram. For one night, this stretch of South Broadway St. had oddly become the center of the surfing universe.
The hype was no surprise for anyone who has followed Neville’s films since his 2010 generation-defining Modern Collective. He made a statement with his surf-movie-turned-discotheque debut, and has doubled down with edgier filmmaking on every project since. He’s not afraid of potentially alienating viewers by, say, splicing images of rotating garage sale items between surf clips. But because his movies contained the best surfing in the world, even the saltiest cynics couldn’t deny that they set the standard for the modern surf film. He had inherited Taylor Steele’s mantle as the prophet who told us where surfing was headed next.
Cluster doesn’t fit as neatly into that mold. It swaps trip-based sections for the old-school surfer-based sections, but otherwise sticks to the standard recipe of two parts grainy lifestyle for every one part surfing. The interstitials mostly show the cast chugging beers, smoking cigs, and flipping off the camera. Some surfers will call it “raw” and maybe even “rebellious”, but after the 75th bird-to-the-camera-whilst-smoking shot, I’d call it a little tired. But that wouldn’t matter so long as Cluster still featured groundbreaking surfing.
From Jack Freestone making an unmakeable backside air to Noa Deane’s kamikaze punts, the surfing in Cluster is undeniably good, but it isn’t exactly earth shattering either. Of course these surfers reside comfortably in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent, but it’s impossible to watch Cluster without wondering at some point, “Where was John John when all this was happening? Or Gabriel? Or Filipe? Or Jordy? Or Kolohe?” The answer to all of the above: competing on the World Tour. And as a person who has never been a big fan of competitive surfing, it feels a little dirty admitting that watching a heat between John John and Gabriel in decent waves is more exciting than most of Cluster. So does the World Tour have a monopoly on the world’s best surfing in 2015? Of course not. Movies like Done and Attractive Distractions are proof that the best surfing is still (usually) happening without a jersey in sight. The problem with Cluster is actually more of a problem with expectations. Kai Neville’s movies are known for perpetually raising the bar, and that’s what we’ve come to expect, but this time the bar stayed firmly in place.
I’m not going to get all Nostradamus and warn of the impending death of the surf movie, because that will never happen. But I do think that this type of surf movie—a straightforward montage of high action and lifestyle—is hurting. In a world where we can pull up free web clips on our phones featuring surfing and editing on par with anything in Cluster, you have to wonder: if it isn’t the very best, then what’s the point?