Welcome to Paradise: Hawaiian Movies Done Right (and Wrong)

Winter is a great time to go to Hawaii — or at least watch movies set and filmed there. But choose carefully: just because a production takes place on one of the 50th state’s gorgeous islands, it doesn’t guarantee a vicarious escape to paradise.

With temperatures hovering around 80 degrees and an endless breeze repelling oppressive humidity, the Hawaiian climate is built for people to experience it outside. Films that occur (From Here to Eternity) and are shot there (Jurassic Park) have famously taken advantage of the land’s plentiful natural wonders, yet in the early 2010s, two mainlanders took decidedly different approaches to respecting that historical precedent.

In the case of Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, it’s often difficult to tell why the director decided to set his film there at all. Easily the worst feature from the man behind Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, and Jerry Maguire, Aloha is undone by an unconvincing romance, busy storytelling, and groan-inducing catchphrases (e.g. “You’re not going to pick my brains. They’re unpickable”). But for anyone who’s been to the islands, another major issue is Aloha’s failure to showcase Hawaii as a place, despite being filmed entirely on Oahu. 

Crowe’s self-professed “love letter” to the state, the bulk of the action mysteriously occurs indoors in largely windowless rooms. Of the scenes that are set outdoors, many take place at night, while those in the daylight depict a limited range of vistas with actors filmed too close up to highlight their beautiful surroundings.

A glance at Crowe’s career, however, suggests that such results should have been expected. Though the innocuous, post-Elizabethtown rebound We Bought a Zoo makes perfectly fine use of a man-made nature preserve, Crowe’s films haven’t exactly established him as an outdoors enthusiast. From the arenas of Almost Famous to the sports agent offices of Jerry Maguire, his best work predominantly takes place indoors with memorable exterior scenes from those films, Vanilla Sky, and Singles occurring in urban settings. Even the tree-lined “In Your Eyes” boombox serenade of Say Anything… isn’t something that had the Sierra Club blowing up Crowe’s pager to helm their next campaign.

As such, it’s understandable that the filmmaker would restrict much of Aloha‘s action to the safety of Hickam Air Force Base in Pearl Harbor and, with precious few exceptions, shy away from engaging with the lush Hawaiian landscapes in a meaningful manner. In turn, outdoor shots make up roughly 20 of the film’s 105 minutes, with the rest lensed in a handful of unremarkable interiors, suggesting that the production could have taken place anywhere.

Despite the assignment’s would-be no-brainer nature, in tandem with a narrative that purports to be at least partially about the conservation of land for native people, expecting someone with this background to respectfully depict the state’s beauty is perhaps too big of an ask. And though Aloha’s obliviousness of place is all the more egregious arriving four years after Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, the success of the latter as a Hawaii movie makes significantly more sense in the context of its maker’s filmography. 

Like Crowe, Payne’s early work sticks closely to cityscapes — more specifically, those of Omaha, Nebraska. But beginning with the roadtrip saga of About Schmidt, Payne’s scope expanded and welcomed in the great outdoors as a supporting player and muse. While Sideways has its share of indoor scenes in the hotels, restaurants, and wineries that Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) visit on the latter’s stag weekend, it’s the expansive outdoor shots — be it Miles’ Saab on the highway or the old friends taking in the beauty of California’s wine country — that helped elevate Payne from quirky indie filmmaker to Oscar winner.

Yes, the honor was for adapted screenplay, but the experience nevertheless helped unlock Payne as a filmmaker in tune with nature. Following the subsequent seven-year hiatus that saw him direct the pilot for the HBO comedy Hung and a segment of the anthology film Paris, Je T’aime — as well as play Oscar Wilde in Wes Craven’s chapter — Payne returned to cinemas with The Descendants, a film that revels in Hawaii’s outdoors and seems impatient to return when its characters venture inside.

Driven by a story that demands to be told in the daylight, the Oscar-winning adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel follows Honolulu-based lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) and his decision of whether to sell “25,000 pristine acres on Kaua’i that [his] family has owned since the 1860s.”

In true “Chekhov’s gun” fashion, Payne and his go-to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael will eventually show the land in all its glory. But in the meantime, Matt must contend with his wife’s coma following a boating accident, the revelation of her infidelity, and the likelihood of raising his daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) alone — a far more compelling mix of conflicts than Aloha’s simplistic yet convoluted hodgepodge of scenes, subjects, and crises that don’t convincingly belong together. Payne and Crowe may have earned screenwriting Oscars in the 2000s, but only one was living up to that legacy in the 2010s.

Though plenty of The Descendants scenes take place indoors, they’re almost always during the day and feature the island’s copious flora through large, unobstructed windows. If open-air ICUs were a thing, there’s a sense that Payne would have set his hospital scenes in one of them, and in the rare instances when a scene is set at night, it’s almost always at a place that’s previously been shown during the day.

As for the outdoor scenes, they’re a natural extension of the narrative and almost too frequent to mention — a running depiction of Matt’s conscience and his evolving stance on what to do with his ancestral property. It might as well be a glimpse into Payne’s mind: following The Descendents, the director returned to the midwest with his best film thus far, Nebraska, which combines his enhanced eye for exterior shots with a distinct flair for dramedy rooted in the people and customs of his home state. And his most recent feature, Downsizing, hinges on a fantastical sci-fi premise to curb humans’ detrimental impacts on Earth, suggesting that his environmental interests have become an integral part of his art.

Without this loving attention to nature, and despite a plot that likewise centers on preservation (sort of), Aloha plays like a bizarro version of The Descendants, zigging where Payne’s film zags and may as well have been shot on a Hollywood soundstage. By contrast, The Descendants feels like it couldn’t have been made anywhere else and should serve as a template for future Hawaiian productions.

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