“Rapa Nui” looks very much like an act of cinematic folly, a wacky anthropological adventure staged on a grand scale and filmed in obviously difficult and inhospitable circumstances. It’s more of a guilty pleasure than a satisfying movie experience, and though it may open to reasonable figures if given an attractive campaign by Warners, it looks to have stunted legs. It’s getting theatrical release in Australia and parts of Europe ahead of U.S. exposure, which is planned for September.
“Robin Hood” director Kevin Reynolds initiated this project after seeing an ethnographic docu about Easter Island, the world’s most remote inhabited island, and then visiting the place himself. Screenplay, which he concocted with Britisher Tim Rose Price, speculates on the creation of the moai, the mysterious giant statues scattered over the barren terrain, and on what happened to the original islanders before the arrival of the Dutch on Easter Sunday, 1722.
Result is a fiction that brings to mind that other piece of impressive cinematic foolishness, Howard Hawks’ “Land of the Pharaohs” (1955), about the creation of the pyramids. Pic unfolds some 40 years before the Europeans landed, when the island’s inhabitants were divided between the ruling Long Ear nobility and the enslaved Short Ears. The people believe that the first settler was Hotu Matua, and the moai are built, by the Short Ears, to encourage his return.
Every year, a contest is held among the Long Ear clans to decide who will rule for the next year. The competition consists of a kind of Ironman race, in which clan reps have to climb down a sheer cliff, swim through shark-infested waters to a neighboring island where seabirds nest, obtain eggs from the nests, swim back and rescale the cliff, with the clan that sponsored the first man to arrive with his egg intact deemed to be the next ruler.
For 20 years, the race has been won by the same clan, led by Ariki-mau (Eru Potaka-Dewes). The old man is now sick but determined to win again via his grandson, Noro (Jason Scott Lee).
Tupa loves a Short Ear girl, Ramana (Sandrine Holt from “Black Robe”), who is in turn loved by another Short Ear, Tupa’s boyhood friend Make (Esai Morales). Marrying a Short Ear is taboo for a Long Ear, but grandfather gives Tupa his blessing for the match provided he wins the race.
When the Short Ears rebel at having to construct a larger moai in record time , Make is given permission to enter the race also; if he wins, he can have Ramana himself.
The race is excitingly staged and filmed, as the contestants battle with each other and the elements, including the inevitable shark attack. The somewhat anti-climactic final reel depicts a civil war between the Long and Short Ears, which anthropologists suggest was the reason for the disappearance of Rapa Nui’s original population.
Reynolds decided to shoot on Easter Island, with additional shooting and post-production in Australia. The result looks spectacular, although it’s doubtful if the journey was really necessary, as the rugged cliffs and bleak terrain could undoubtedly have been duplicated elsewhere, and most of the moai are clearly models made specifically for the picture. Stephen Windom’s Panavision cinematography’s impressive; production and costume design are also imaginative. Stewart Copeland did the fine score.
Dramatically, pic is more problematic, and just as Hawks had problems deciding how ancient Egyptians might talk, so the dialogue for the most part is unconvincing. The members of the diverse cast act in as many styles as they have accents, resulting in sometimes laughable moments.
Still, it could be that there is an audience willing to go along with the exotic melodramatics of this silly but perversely enjoyable epic.