From the Post-Colonial Peanut Gallery: “Aloha”

Film review by Daniel Fan

“Sometimes you have to say goodbye before you can say hello.”

“Aloha:” a traditional Hawaiian word which is used both as a greeting and a send off.  And now, it’s a mid-sized romantic-comedy starring a pretty much all-white cast.

Aloha is the story of Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a washed-up, blown-up former US Air Force officer and private military contractor working a last-chance gig for billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray as an interesting amalgamation of Richard Branson and Dick Cheney, with a little Jim Carrey goofy-ness mixed in).  Serving as romantic opposites for Gilcrest are Rachel McAdams portraying Tracy Woodside (honest, hardworking, but longsuffering former flame of Gilcrest) and Emma Stone as the straight-laced Air Force rising-star Captain Allison Ng.

[Spoilers ahead]

The character of Allison Ng deserves some discussion here.   Emma Stone appears in Aloha with her natural (or as natural as Hollywood can be) blond hair.  “Ng” is a Cantonese (Chinese) last name.  I get the sneaking suspicion that Cameron Crowe (both director and screenwriter for Aloha) envisioned someone a little more, shall we say Grace-Park-ish for the roll of Allison Ng—landing an A-lister like Ms. Stone probably settled any discussion on that topic.  While it would have been easier for most audiences to believe someone of mixed Asian raced was a quarter native Hawaiian it would have been no less of an appropriation.  Come on, there weren’t any Native Hawaiian actresses available?  I really feel like giving this character the surname of “Ng” was an unnecessary distraction to what would have been appropriation anyways.  Once Emma Stone signed on, why not just change the character’s name her “Allison Jorgenson” and be done with it?  In the end, there is no reason she couldn’t have been 100% native Hawaiian and given what this character does on screen, casting a native Hawaiian actress in the role would have been entirely appropriate.

The plot:  Aloha’s intro title roll splices together generic cold war footage with Hawaiian luau and parade scenes.  When Gilcrest and his potential romantic rival, the strong but silent John “Woody” Woodside (C-17 pilot and now husband of McAdam’s Tracy Woodside) deplane on the ramp at Hickam AFB, there is a Hula team to greet them.  Make no mistake: for better or worse this film knows it’s set in Hawaii and lays on the Hawaiiana thick.

Gilcrest’s immediate task is to secure the indigenous population’s blessing for the opening of a new, high-capacity gate for Joint Base Hickam/Pearl Harbor.  His real job is to ensure the successful launch of Global One’s private rocket “Brave Angel” and the safe delivery of its mystery payload.  While Gilcrest makes awkwardly familiar conversation with Tracy, he’s hounded by the by-the-book Captain Ng, who’s been tasked with keeping Gilcrest on a tight leash.

It’s here that we’re introduced to Tracy’s and Woody’s son Mitch, who fulfills the role of the creepy, yet strangely prescient kid obsessed with the Hawaiian legend of the arrival of Lono—a kid who couldn’t possibly have read the book since he never puts down his video camera.  Mitch muses that Gilcrest is, in fact Lono (Makahiki Hawaiian God of peace)—a convenient metaphor, but one that is strangely never completed by Crowe.

Gilcrest and Ng make their way to the camp of the Soveriegn Hawaiian Nation, ruled by King “Bumpy” (real-life Hawaiian sovereignty activist Dennis Kanahele).  Before they arrive Ng awkwardly pronounces “This place has a lot of mana [power].”  It’s a jarring insertion and not the last time that Crowe’s injection of Hawaiiana comes across too on-the-nose.

While the odd pair are initially repulsed by the local toughs, it turns out that Gilcrest and Bumpy go way back and Bumpy accepts Gilcrest as Ohana (“family,” didn’t you watch Lilo and Stitch?).  Despite Bumpy having “big time respect” for military folks “when they do the right thing” Gilcrest’s ham fisted attempts at negotiation falter until he’s rescued by Ng who just happens to be fluent in native Hawaiian.  Ng saves the negotiations: Bumpy will bless the opening of the gate and removal of native Hawaiian burial remains on the condition that he is given back “two hills” of land, a cell tower to provide coverage over his lands, and assurances that the base will not be used to launch weapons into orbit (something Ng confidently states cannot take place since the US is a signatory of a no-weapons-in-space treaty).

While driving back to town Gilcrest muses “We speak money, they speak myths & sky.  The sky doesn’t speak [it’s all about money].”  Ok, we get it, Gilcrest is not sincere in his negotiations—not exactly the first haole to lie during negotiations.  But then Ng spots series of strange lights and shadows ahead.  “Night Marchers!” Really?  Unfortunately, Gilcrest doesn’t get picked like an Opihi.  I’m not really sure what this scene was supposed to do plot-wise.  Maybe it was supposed to contradict Gilcrest’s earlier quip denying the presence of supernatural intervention, or maybe it was just another insertion of Hawaiiana in the cause of “authenticity?”  Either way, it didn’t really work for Gilcrest and probably won’t work for most audience members who will not necessarily connect the Night Marchers with the sky speaking to a mere human.  If that’s even what this scene was written for.

From here the film takes a turn toward the personal.  Gilcrest visits the Woodsides at their home, and finds Ng already there instructing the Woodside’s nominal daughter, Grace in the Hula (is there anything that Ng can’t do?).  Gilcrest and Tracy begin a long awaited and badly needed after-action report on their relationship only to be interrupted by Woody who silently conveys a number of sentiments without saying a word.  In an odd but winsome reversal of the “women are always better communicators than men” trope, Tracy is completely ignorant of what is being said, so Gilcrest translates for her after Woody leaves. It’s an awkward introduction to a shtick that pays off pretty well later on.  Suffice to say that there are unresolved feelings and issues between Tracy and Gilcrest.

It’s also here that we get, in my opinion, one of the biggest mis-steps of the screenplay.  Gilcrest visits Mitch in his room to find the boy watching a hamster mating clip on his computer.  Whether this is intended to show that Mitch is more mature than the typical child or that the child is in fact some form of creepy hamster porn aficionado isn’t clear and it gets less clear due to the dialog that follows.  Gilcrest asks Mitch how the arrival myth ends, so he knows where the story goes (and, if he in fact wants to be Lono).   Mitch explains (remember: this is a pre-teen child) Pele captures Lono and enacts “revenge-sex” on him for the next 1000 years, the result of which becomes the next island in the Hawaiian chain.  They both conclude that such a fate is “not a bad way to go.”  How would an eight year-old-not only know what revenge-sex is but also know enough to be in favor of being the victim of 1000 years of said revenge-sex?  Maybe hamster porn isn’t the only thing this kid has been watching—or perhaps he’s found a truly unique subgenre of the already unique hamster-porn subgenre: revenge hamster porn.   Maybe you really can find anything on the internet these days—despite that possibility I would opine that are some corners of cyberspace into which young boys should not be looking, revenge hamster porn being one of them.

Gilcrest and Ng eventually wind up in the Officer’s Club with everyone else from the cast except anyone who is actually native Hawaiian.  There’s a party, some mention of menehune (when the wind blows some shutters open) and as a result of this sequence, we learn three very important things 1) Ng is not only an accomplished Hula dancer, fighter pilot, and Olelo speaker, but she can also cut a rug American style as well, 2) Carson Welch, owner of Global One, intends to put his own private nuke into space with the upcoming Brave Angel launch that is only days away.  Carson’s justification is that he is a patriot and America needs to be one step ahead of the Chinese (Sorry Vladimir, you’ve been demoted), 3) Alec Baldwin’s acting has devolved from the compelling bully Blake of “Glen Gary Glen Ross” to whatever overacting goof is named in the Capitol One “What’s in your wallet?” scripts.

Gilcrest opens the flash drive given to him by Carson which shows Brave Angel’s mystery second payload, but doesn’t chose to share the contents with Ng despite an intimate encounter that night.  Later Ng visits the Woodside’s house while on a post-sex-high jog-through-the-neighborhood and sees covert footage captured by Mitch of Brave Angel being loaded onto Global One’s rocket.  Somehow she deduces that the payload is weaponized (told you, this wahine got da mana!).  She meets Gilcrest for a pre-arranged lunch and confronts him over his broken promise to Bumpy.  The two have a predictable falling out which is made somewhat more entertaining by the inclusion of a ridiculous hat.  Not gonna lie: ‘Dat hat steal ‘da scene, brah.  Don’t be surprised to see it on stage next year for Oscar: best supporting actor/actress.

To her credit, Ng seems genuinely distressed by this revelation of an attempt to weaponize space.  It’s not just that Gilcrest betrayed her, but that she also, as an accessory to the launch, will betray the Native Hawaiians to whom she seems to have more of a connection to than Gilcrest himself.

The native Hawaiians bless the gate opening and in a seemingly rushed sequence a still feuding Gilcrest and Ng are whisked off to launch control: the date has been moved up.  Instead of running the launch sequence from a modern command center, the odd couple are closeted in what looks like a 1970s radio studio hidden in the back of a grocery warehouse.  The cloak-and-dagger-secret-bat-cave-ness of the whole scene are never explained.

Carson Welch needs Gilcrest to eliminate a Chinese hack (it’s always the Chinese isn’t it?) before Global One’s rocket reaches orbit.  Of course, he’s successful at it: it’s as easy as deleting a couple lines of code which are conveniently highlighted in red text.

Ng sits down in the launch center, crushed.  Bumpy peers into the sky, troubled.  Carson Welch sits back nervously watching his plans come to fruition.  Brave Angel reaches geo-synchronous orbit and deploys successfully.

Gilcrest looks around the launch center and decides to do the right thing.  For those of you who were wondering: Gilcrest doing the right thing was never in doubt (this is a rom-com remember?).  In a leap of both logic and physics, he uses concentrated sound waves to knock the Brave Angel out of orbit.  Really?  Sound in space?  Pigs in Space would have made more sense.

With that, Gilcrest effectively nails shut the coffin to his own career in the aerospace industry.  He leaves to tie up a few loose ends with Tracy.  Tracy finally admits to Gilcrest that Grace is his daughter, not Woody’s, although she and her husband have never talked about where Grace came from.  In the second best acted scent of the film, Woody and Gilcrest have a touching (pun intended) silent conversation which happily displays John Karsinki’s depth as an actor.  Jim from The Office has grown up.

Gilcrest also visits the Hula Halau where Grace is dancing.  The two share a heartfelt, but silent scene as Grace comes to the same understanding as Gilcrest.  Aloha does have its moments and this is one of them.

In a finale that seems more than slightly deus-ex-machina, Gilcrest is sent off to the o-club where Alec Baldwin’s General Dixon absolves Gilcrest of any criminal wrongdoing.  It turns out that the Air Force finally figured out what the second “mystery” payload of Brave Angel actually was.  Gilcrest then goes on to catch Ng at the hotel before she leaves for parts unknown.

As a rom-com Aloha works—barely.  Unfortunately the number of awkwardly staged set pieces, and creepy/oddly timed lines of dialog outweigh the few sweet moments of the film.  Crowe’s male actors fill their roles pretty well, and I particularly enjoyed the quirky eccentricity that Bill Murray injected into what could have been a bland and one-dimensional villain.  On the other hand Alec Baldwin wasn’t particularly believable as an over-animated, but then super chill four star general (how come every Hollywood general has to have four stars?).  Crowe’s female characters were where I had the most problems.  McAdams, who is an accomplished actress didn’t seem to have much to work with in the character of Tracy Woodside.  Conversely, Emma Stone, was asked to cover too much ground in a do-all/be-all-character.

Ultimately, the biggest casting complaint I have about Aloha is that Cameron Crowe missed an opportunity to put a truly native Hawaiian actress on-screen.  It’s a movie in Hawaii, partially about Hawaii, with a character who speaks Hawaiian and knows the Hawaiian legends.  What more excuse do you need to buck the typical Hollywood trend of casting white people as indigenous/POC?  It’s not that Emma Stone is a bad actress, but this wasn’t her part.  As it happened, the combination that is Captain Allison Ng on-screen both serves the appropriation narrative that we’re all (part) Hawaiian—even if we look Haole as all get out and distracts from the narrative itself.

Props to Crowe for his inclusion of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.  I really think he tried, not only in casting Dennis Kanahele and other Native Hawaiians as supporting cast/extras but also by including dialog by non-native characters that recognizes native rights to their own land.  What I am not so sure of is how non-kanaka maoli audiences will receive their portrayal and what I am really hoping does not come across is a sentiment that the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement is composed of what are politically irrelevant brown-skinned rednecks in search of cell service.   This film includes, by far, the most screen-time for the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement of any recent major release so far.  But that also reflects poorly on Hollywood as a whole if this is the best example that we have (while “The Descendants” talked about keeping land the cause was more sentimentality than sovereignty).

When I saw the trailer for Aloha, I really wanted to dislike the film (“All white people in a film on Hawaii?  What is this the Hawaiian version of Friends?”).   Then I was impressed to see Crowe’s seemingly honest inclusion of a part of the Hawaiian story that Hollywood actively avoids.  In the end, I was left with mixed feelings.  Just in terms of film mechanics, Aloha could have been much smoother than it was.  In terms of recognizing Hawaiian sovereignty and the current occupation of the islands, it could have said so much more both via scripting and casting.  In the end Aloha finishes as a tempting, but sadly missed opportunity to both tell a good story and make an important stand.

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