Picks and Pans Review: Rapa Nui

updated 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jason Scott Lee, Esai Morales

In the late 17th century, Rapa Nui (Easter Island's Polynesian name) is dominated by a heavy-lobed tribe called the Long Ears. Their chieftain is the plump, prissy Eru Potaka-Dewes, who is obsessed with placating his ancestors and fulfilling a mystic vision involving a white canoe (he speaks of it with the same quivering tenderness that Shirley Booth used when remembering her runaway doggie in Come Back, Little Sheba). Potaka-Dewes has dedicated the native economy to carving those mammoth, long-jawed statues that even today maintain their solemn vigil over the island.

The sculpting, unfortunately, all falls to a proletariat tribe, the short-eared Short Ears. They're dangerously fertile, consistently underfed and much too handy with an ax. The island is on the verge of treelessness.

Lee, as the likely heir to the Rapa Nui throne, sees the Malthusian implications of all this and lectures the old fussbudget, whose mind is clouded with white-canoe business. Meanwhile, with each rising and setting of the sun, the short-eared Morales—whose performance, like Lee's, boils down to hurling thunderbolts from his eyes—looks more and more like a troublemaker.

Given this sort of ecosociopolitical framework, it's not surprising that Rapa Nui, directed by Kevin Reynolds (and produced by Kevin Costner), feels less like a drama than a combination travelogue-morality play, or that incidents that should have real impact—tribal warfare, shark attacks, cannibalism—barely register. (R)

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