Counting last year’s INTERSTELLAR, Cameron Crowe’s ALOHA is the third relatively recent big studio/big star movie to ground a “how far we’ve fallen” moral-center on the lessened public-profile of NASA and Kennedy-era scientific-optimism. Given that all three (Brad Bird’s spectacularly-misfired TOMORROWLAND being the third) have been pretty bad films (with ALOHA hopefully representing rock-bottom, because if not…), it would appear that one of the Space Agency’s biggest yet least remarked-upon problems is that its self-appointed spokespeople suck at the job.
It almost feels like a digression to bring it up, since mourning the end of the Space Race is a minor element in ALOHA; entering the plot chiefly in connection to the backstory of ostensible hero Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), whose dreams of Astronaut glory were cut short by public disinterest in space, and the Hawaiian setting’s own unbreakable connection to that same kitschy/sincere moment in American pop-culture history when spaceflight and a storybook Polynesian paradise as an easily-visited American state both felt like future-fantasy wish dreams come to life… but that’s the problem with ALOHA in general: Everything is a minor plot element. There’s no sense of scale or center to the various goings-on trying to comprise a story, nothing to hang onto.
The story, such as it is, goes like this (SPOILERS from here out): Having been right-man/wrong-time’d out of going to space, Gilcrest took his military/pilot skills into the private sector as a Blackwater-ish mercenary for an Musk/Soros/Branson/Gates hybrid tech-billionaire/philanthropist (it’s kind of unclear what he actually does) played by Bill Murray, whose latest project involves joint-launching his new satellite with help from the U.S. Army base in Hawaii and (if successful) paying for a base-expansion that will make it the new hub of U.S. space/military presence in the Pacific. But! The construction will require moving an ancient Native Hawaiian burial site, which requires (for P.R.) the literal and figurative blessing of the independent native-nation’s King Bumpy, whose reticent to do so because of Hawaiian religious myths about the sanctity of the sky but might be convinced by his old friend Gilcrest.
However! Gilcrest is viewed as a loose-canon because of an unspecified (for no reason than that the script wants it to be an Act 3 reveal) “incident” in the Middle East, so he’s assigned a military handler in the form of Emma Stone’s Captain Ng; a 1/4 Native Hawaiian (no, really) rising-star pilot who is alternately a hard-nosed army-robot and a drippy, starry-eyed romantic who believes literally in the religious mythology of Ancient Hawaii. OH! And this is actually all B-story (or, at least, it feels like it was meant to be before every storyline was cut down to equal-incomprehensibility) to the main drama: Gilcrest’s return unwittingly (maybe?) upending the troubled marriage of his former love (Rachel McAdams) and conversation-averse lovable-lunkhead pilot (John Krasinski) which may or may not involve an uncomfortable secret about their eldest child that the film expects you not to guess even after you notice only one kid is important to the plot…
And if all that sounds both inane and convoluted, imagine it being doled out piecemeal and out of order mainly in the form of conversational side-details as the film charts a burgeoning (out of nowhere) romance between Gilcrest and Ng; because this is a Cameron Crowe movie and Cameron Crowe makes movies about magical pixie-women who exist largely to entice, trick or drag broken/incomplete men into the next logical phase of their lives through romantic availability (that’s not the problem – the problem is he isn’t good at it anymore.) Cooper is as appealing as he typically is when not voicing a Space Raccoon (read: not very), but Stone’s character feels like the worst example yet of the spell her presence seems to cast over older male filmmakers – one that compells them to hand her underwritten fantasy-girlfriend roles that mainly involve flitting around like Tinkerbell for their chastely-leering camera. Is there a more criminally-underutilized actress currently working?
In between their utterly unconvincing will-they/won’t-they drift a dizzying number of minor story-beats, go-nowhere subplots and Oh-So-Crowe scenes of people lounging about and losing themselves in needle-drop pop music: Bumpy wants land-rights to a mountain in exchange for the blessing. Danny McBride’s goof-up soldier is nicknamed “fingers” for some reason. Gilcrest and Ng encounter a parade of Hawaiian warrior-ghosts. It happens to be Christmas for no reason. Mute Husband walks out because he feels inferior to Gilcrest. There’s a scene where Murray and Stone dance for no real reason. The Menehune (dwarf-like spirits in Hawaiian mythology) may be about at one point. Ng and McAdams’ younger kid are both fixated on an approaching holiday related to the Goddess Pele. Said younger kid is also an amature videographer whose obsessive filmming of his island home’s goings-on (remember when we asked filmmakers to be subtle about self-insert characters?) may or may not have captured evidence that something sinister is going into space along with that satellite – something that would violate a promise from Ng to Bumpy that the army will not put weapons in the sky over Hawaii. Oh, and Alex Baldwin is there.
It’s all as ridiculous as it sounds, but without the enthusiastic go-for-broke gumption that characterized more noble recent failures like JUPITER ASCENDING or the initial wave of Tyler Perry productions. Instead it’s boring, the obvious result of studio attempts to salvage a dud by cutting for time even though Crowe was obviously going for a setting-appropriate (though likely just as insufferable) laid-back pacing. In this respect it most-closely resembles another recent atrocity, LITTLE BOY (I’ve got to write that… thing up one of these days); at least until the finale, where (I warned you about SPOILERS:) Gilcrest redeems himself to Ng by contacting a computer-expert pal we’ve never seen before so that they can blow-up the evil satellite in orbit by uploading “the entire history of recorded sound” (mostly 70s pop-rock, because Cameron Crowe) into it’s… mainframe, I guess? But! It’s all okay because it turns out Bill Murray was actually a Bond Villain this whole time and that was his nuclear-missile on the satellite, not the Army’s. So Brian not only saves his soul and (eventually) his ex’s marriage, he gets to retire as World Savior and Ng’s Hawaiian house-husband. Yay?
Supposedly this is all the “re-tooling” of an earlier project called DEEP TIKI, which would’ve featured Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon in the Cooper/Stone roles. The problems surrounding that version (namely the studio hated it and was losing patience with Crowe) came embarrassingly to light during the Sony email hacking scandal, but from the looks of things this was a salvage job that was never actually going to work. The popular notion that Crowe has been heading downhill since making his most personal work in ALMOST FAMOUS (which dovetails nicely with the second-wave indie scene kids co-opting his “earnest dork meets sexy life-coach” storyline en-masse) has been well proven by now, but ALOHA represents a whole new depth of failure: He’s not simply playing the same old song, he can’t even play it well anymore.
Also, asking Bradley Cooper to do his weaksauce “rakish charmer bro” schtick in the same movie as the actual Bill Murray is unfair to the point of cruelty – it’s like watching a birthday party magician step to Gandalf The White… but that probably would’ve been true no matter who was directing.