Never has surfing looked more at home in the ocean.
The timing of John John Florence film Space casts a shadow over Gabriel, Filipe and Julian. Their pool battle, and their title race.
The fact the film follows traditional surf film formula, surfing set to music, starting with innovative airs (flips), then big turns and crescendoing with a big barreling Hawaii section, allows for the profound greatness of John’s surfing to remain the central focus.
Space almost immediately reaffirms John John’s position as the greatest surfer in world today, mainly because almost all his surfing is performed on waves of consequence.
The timing of it marks a transition that is difficult to understate. It showcases the value of a talented support crew. The filmmakers at Parallel Sea are nearly as talented and focused on their craft as John is on his. They understand cinema. They understand mood and character. They treat John’s surfing as high art without fawning over him. They include zero lifestyle shots. They fill those spaces with nature.
I found myself wondering how we might perceive Gabriel Medina if he had a similarly talented crew reflecting his surf experience to us. Space marks a transition into an era where simply capturing incredible surfing on film will no longer garner audience attention. There is a glut of thoughtlessly edited, hi-fi surfing available. When was the last time you watched a six-minute surf edit? We’ve had our fill. Cinema will now be required to capture our interest. We’ve seen examples of surf cinema in the past, Space now mandates it as requirement.
Parallel Sea’s choice to include the preaching of TD Jakes adds gravitas. In any other instance, it would feel contrived and cheesy, but it works here. There is no secret meaning, innuendo nor subliminal messaging in the preachings. It’s Jakes’ delivery style that adds gravitas to the piece. His baritone and intensity accentuates the seriousness of John John’s surfing.
And it is serious.
So serious that one of his aerial attempts resulted in a year-ending injury. In a year when John John would be defending his two back-to-back world titles.
The timing of the release of Space was undoubtedly strategic. Everyone will attribute John’s injury as the reason he was unable to defend his world titles in 2018.
But let’s not forget that prior to injury John had a 25th at Snapper, three 13ths, and his best result was a 9th. He was not in position to win a third title. And, specifically, his paddling incident with Zeke Lau at Bells Beach highlighted a shortcoming in his competitive game. He lacked zeal, fire, and tenacity. That moment also seemed to cultivate a mental fragility that followed John throughout the next events. He fell. He made odd decisions. He had four opportunities to better scores in his round three heat against Jesse Mendes at Keramas and he simply didn’t. He went huge a couple times and fell, which is commendable, but it was round two, and he could have easily out-surfed Jesse Mendes.
Zeke exploited a weakness in John. Not just a weak moment.
Wounded athletes often return to competition stronger than ever, with a renewed focus. Eight months on the sofa breeds appreciation for what may have been previously taken for granted à la Mick Fanning in 2005 or Lakey Peterson this year.
We should expect a similar return from John. Moreover, John won his first two titles with freakish talent. Zeke Lau found a way to disable that confidence and injury has provided enough respite for John to reflect. He’s displayed humility in the past and he has a team of coaches, trainers, sponsors and, most important, family who have proven to be focused on a very long game. They are watching every event and taking notes of other competitors weaknesses, tells, and blindspots.They are using this down time to formulate competitive tactics and strategy that will fortify John’s 2019 title campaign.
The timing of Space serves to redirect any attention that was focused on Surf Ranch and the world title race. As viewers of Surf Ranch found themselves looking away while surfers sat in the tube. The Ranch wave only grabbed viewers attention once the end section approached. One is unable to look away from Space. The Phantom Flex 4k footage reveals intricacies of water moving and John’s contortions the closest approximations of real-life viewing that we’ve ever seen in surf film.
One nearly motionless moment shows a barreling, overhead right gurgling with foam. The tip of John’s board appears, seemingly unmanned, spit veiling its rider. Then the wave breathes and reveals John casually levitate over a foam ball. It’s a genuinely brand new moment in surf cinema.
The timing of the film serves to remind us that winning world titles is an impressive achievement, but not a reflection of who is the best surfer in the world.
It’s timing also serves to remind us of the irreplicable beauty and wonder of the ocean. Space offers a glimpse at the ocean’s majesty, harnessed by John John, and on display through the cinematography of Erik Knutson and Chris Bryan.
Never has surfing looked more at home in the ocean.
And never has the ghost of an injured surfer cast such a long shadow over a world title race.