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Movie Review : ‘Rapa Nui’ Presents a Fantasy Island of a Simpler Past

TIMES FILM CRITIC

The pounding surf is loud, but the native drums are louder, more insistent. The perfumed air is thick with passion as two young lovers meet and embrace in the shadow of enormous stone monoliths. So what if their love is forbidden, their clothing minimal, their dialogue ridiculous? This is Hollywood and the show must go on.

Co-written (with Tim Rose Price) and directed by Kevin Reynolds, “Rapa Nui” is one of those giddy South Seas fantasies where haughty priests hiss about broken taboos and dialogue like “I don’t need this, I’ve got chicken entrails to read” is thick upon the land. A heedless throwback to Cinemascope epics of a simpler time, it is enjoyable in the way only inappropriately serious projects manage to be.

Mixing the earnestness of “The Ten Commandments” with genteel nudity, authentic locations and brisk big-screen action, “Rapa Nui” is so wide-eyed and deferential about its cliched situations that bemusement is the only possible response. Adults will yearn to be teen-agers again, the better to appreciate its guileless accomplishments.

More than being set on Easter Island, celebrated as the home of ancient stone idols weighing upward of 100 tons, “Rapa Nui” was actually shot there. Filming on one of the world’s remotest inhabited locations was quite a feat, and it’s unfortunate the same trouble wasn’t taken with a story that plays like a rehash of themes worked to death for decades.

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Anachronistically named (the title is the modern Polynesian designation for a locale its original inhabitants called Te Pito Te Henua), “Rapa Nui” takes place in the late 1600s, a generation before the arrival of Europeans doomed the island’s traditional way of life.

Small though it is, Rapa Nui has a highly developed caste system revolving around the construction of those stone behemoths, known as moais . The effete, befeathered upper classes, named Long Ears because of the lobe extenders they prefer, do the supervising, while the sweaty, unadorned Short Ears do all the heavy lifting.

In rare moments of spare time, the Long Ears prepare for the sacred Birdman competition, a down-home version of the triathlon, where participants scale perilous cliffs and swim in shark-infested waters, all to bring back the first sooty tern egg of the season. The leader of the winner’s clan gets to be the Ariki-mau, head man of the island.

The current Ariki-mau (New Zealand actor Eru Potaka-Dewes) has held the job so long he’s fallen under the influence of Tupa (George Henare), a sinister priest, and no longer notices that the overworked and underfed Short Ears are on the verge of bringing the term labor unrest to the South Pacific.

Also oblivious is the Ariki-mau ‘s grandson Noro (Jason Scott Lee), so wrapped up in his forbidden love for Short Ear siren Ramana (Sandrine Holt) that he wouldn’t notice if one of those enormous moai moved in next door.

Noro’s mental fog is fated not to last, and soon he will have to grapple with some Big Questions. Where did his father disappear to and why won’t anyone talk about it? Will Ramana have to spend time in the dread Cave of the White Virgins before they can marry? And how far will former friend and Short Ear spokesperson Make (Esai Morales) go to try to get Ramana for himself?

Not surprisingly, many of these questions get resolved during that climactic Birdman event, which is where Reynolds and company (especially cinematographer Stephen F. Windon and editor Peter Boyle) are at their best. Backed by a dashing percussive score by Stewart Copeland, the footage here is good fun in a Saturday-matinee way, and not the least of the reasons why it succeeds is that everyone is too busy rushing about to talk.

Though Lee and Holt are physically graceful performers--he is from Hawaii, she from Canada--Morales was raised in Brooklyn and the rest of cast comes from New Zealand and other former outposts of the British Empire. This melange of accents gives “Rapa Nui’s” already goofy “don’t let them make fishhooks out of my thigh bones” dialogue a Tower of Babel quality it doesn’t really need.

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A director best known for “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Reynolds has never brought anything close to emotional realism to a film, and “Rapa Nui” is no exception. And though the Birdman event apparently did exist, news reports indicate that much of the rest of the film’s story line owes more to old movies than anthropological accuracy. But when those island drums are beating, audiences may be grinning too much to care.

* MPAA rating: R, for some tribal violence and sexuality. Times guidelines: The nudity is fairly innocent. ‘Rapa Nui’

Jason Scott Lee: Noro

Esai Morales: Make

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Sandrine Holt: Ramana

Eru Potaka-Dewes: Grandfather

George Henare: Tupa

A TIG Productions/Majestic Films production, in association with RCS, released by Warner Bros. Director Kevin Reynolds. Producers Kevin Costner, Jim Wilson. Executive producers Barrie M. Osborne, Guy East. Screenplay Time Rose Price, Kevin Reynolds. Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon. Editor Peter Boyle. Costumes John Bloomfield. Music Stewart Copeland. Production design George Liddle. Art director Ian Allen. Set decorator Brian Dusting. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

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* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 553-8900.


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