“When from the terrors of Nature a people have fashion’d and worship a Spirit of Evil,/Blest be the Voice of the Teacher who calls to them/‘Set yourselves free!’”
Those are the opening words of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Kapiolani” – a telling of an obscure but utterly fascinating piece of evangelical Christian history. The titular Hawaiian chiefess was one of the first people on the island to be transformed by the gospel message of American missionaries in the early 1800s and, in an effort to demonstrate her newfound faith and disprove the superstitions of her ancestors, she walked 500 feet into a volcano and emerged, alive and remarkably unscathed.
This is riveting and interesting stuff – the sort of thing great drama is made of. Tennyson realized this, and so did “The Islands” director Tim Chey. But even a good story can fall apart without a great storyteller, and Chey is no Tennyson. Not even close.
Simply put, “The Islands” is a mess of a film – miserably acted and horribly scripted with amateurish cinematography and score. Chey takes a compelling story, squanders it and makes us wonder why we ever found it interesting in the first place.
Perhaps Chey’s biggest misstep is sidelining his chiefess heroine (played by Teuira Shanti Napa in the least grating of the film’s performances) and choosing to tell the story instead from the perspective of the white missionaries. This is not a terrible idea in theory especially considering that veteran actors John Savage (of “The Deer Hunter”) and Mira Sorvino (who won an Academy Award a couple decades back) have been cast as the white saviors.
But Savage’s character exists only as a cliché and gospel-spouting machine. Sorvino, as Savage’s wife, has the theoretically more interesting role as a bigoted, complaining woman who isn’t exactly an ideal missionary. But even she exists less as a character and more of a propaganda machine – especially in the film’s second act.
The script doesn’t give any of the characters room to breathe, and nobody- not Kapiolani, not Sorvino’s character- gets a believable character arc. Maybe Chey was worried that character development would get in the way of his Gospel 101 sermonizing and overexplaining dialogue.
Chey and his fellow screenwriters Amanda Lauer and Umi Perkins make a rookie mistake by utilizing grating, near-constant voiceover narration. Their script contains little emotion – even in what should be highly emotional circumstances.
Some actual dialogue as an islander is killed as part of a ritual sacrifice:
“I know that (ritual sacrifice) is wrong.”
Not exactly Shakespeare is it?
The production values are equally amateurish- from the community theater-level acting to a score by Kahoni Milani and Braeden Miller that telegraphs every emotion the audience is supposed to feel without actually allowing them to feel it.
Cinematographer Jorge Monteallegre filmed this story on location in Hawaii but captures little of the state’s natural beauty or sweeping scope.
The whole enterprise is frustratingly shoddy, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that “The Islands” (rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and violence) exists less as art or a compelling self-contained story than a feeble half-hearted evangelism attempt. But it’s equally hard to believe that anybody could find themselves moved by a story so poorly told.
I understand the central concept behind evangelical movies like “The Islands” – stories have the power to transform those who listen to them and open their minds to new thoughts and experiences. This is something that Jesus himself demonstrated throughout his parables. But Jesus also knew that, in order to make an impact, the stories he was telling had to be, you know, good. And “The Islands” simply isn’t.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.