For most folks who step on her shores, Hawaii is paradise found—a flowering land of warmth and welcome.
For Brian Gilcrest, it’s paradise lost.
The last time Brian set foot on the island of Oahu, he was a military up-and-comer—a man with a beautiful belle on his arm and a reputation for being able to get things done, even in some of the world’s most unsavory corners. And if he was a little unsavory himself, well, all for the greater good, right?
But then he was drummed out of the military with a secret scandal hanging over his head. So he returns to Oahu as a civilian defense contractor, working for eccentric billionaire Carson Welch. Brian, the one-time big man in blue, is just a lackey these days, sent to Hawaii to cobble together a real estate deal between Carson, the Air Force and the self-proclaimed Nation of Hawai’i. It’s all to facilitate a military base redesign and the launch of a joint satellite program funded by Carson.
“I went to the gray side,” Brian says. Fitting, perhaps, given his gray past. And because of that past, he’s been paired with a watchdog to make sure he stays in line—the enthusiastic Captain Ng, who sticks to his side like sweet maple syrup.
It doesn’t help that one of the old friends Brian has to work with is an old flame, too. He and Tracy fell in love in the state of Aloha, and they might’ve gotten hitched had Brian not been so commit-o-phobic. Since he split, he hadn’t cast eyes on her for 13 years. And now he finds that’s she’s a wife and a mother.
No matter: Brian’s not here to rekindle old passions. He has a job to do, and perhaps a measure of redemption to root out. Maybe Carson will trust him with more important duties if the job goes well. Maybe he’ll recover a little standing with his old military bosses. Maybe he’ll find a map that shows him how to get out of this hole he’s in.
But Hawaii—that strange and unpredictable place with a mind of its own—may have other ideas.
Brian is a troubled man tempted by bad decisions that aren’t really resolved (even in part) until the very end of the story. As such, pretty much every redemptive element here needs to carry a spoiler warning …
“You sold your soul so many times nobody’s buying anymore,” someone tells Brian, and it may be true. Even when he realizes Carson’s plans for the military base—and a subsequent satellite launch—might not be as well-meaning as the cagey tycoon publicly suggests, Brian seems willing to go along. He’s on a quest to regain power and authority, and he knows Carson’s his only opportunity to get those things back. But thanks to the influence of Captain Ng, he ultimately has a change of heart. He sacrifices his own career, and possibly even his freedom, in order to do what he believes is the right thing.
Brian and Tracy still have a bit of that loving feeling. He never really got over her, and Tracy’s frustrated with her reliable but uncommunicative husband, Woody. But love—true, sacrificial, commitment-oriented love—wins the day. Woody’s not the sort to pour out his feelings, but he tells Tracy how much she means to him in a letter. “You need to know what fear you calm in me every night,” he writes. And it’s Brian who tells Tracy that Woody’s the better man for her.
Brian comes to Hawaii looking for one sort of redemption … and instead finds another, turning his back on prestige and power in favor of principled action and (through one of the movie’s most resonant subplots) fatherhood.
From the very beginning of Aloha, Hawaii is painted as a magical, spiritual place. Tracy’s son, Mitchell, repeatedly brings up the Hawaiian legend of Lono (characterized in the movie as a playful god) and Pele (a goddess of fire), and how their interplay leads to birth and rebirth. Mitchell believes that Brian may be Lono—a force who’ll upend all their lives and put everyone on a new path (for better or worse).
Ng, who constantly brings up the fact that she’s one-quarter Hawaiian, talks about the spirits of the land. When a window blows open, disturbing a military party, she credits the action to “Hawaiian leprechauns,” who are said to come in with the wind. Driving at night, she and Brian come across the “Night Marchers,” thought to be ghosts of ancient warriors. Ng tells Brian to stop and look down, because looking at the spirits (if you’re not Hawaiian) means death. She and others talk about the sacredness of the earth, the sky and the bones of ancestors.
While on the island, Brian must facilitate a sacred ceremony, wherein a new graveyard can be consecrated under the eyes of local gods … but of course he himself doesn’t believe in these island spirits. “Tell me you don’t believe that the sky has the answer to every question,” he says to Ng, and insists the Night Marchers were a reenactment of some sort. “I salute your elaborate system of denial, sir,” Ng says.
Despite not wanting to become a notch, so to speak, in Brian’s bedpost, Ng makes out with him, kisses him and, it’s implied, sleeps with him. (We see bare shoulders under covers afterwards.)
It becomes clear that Brian and Tracy’s previous relationship was a sexual one—one that resulted in a child. And there’s talk of other sexual dalliances as well. A colonel tells Brian he has so much power it gives him an erection. In film clips we see people frolicking on Hawaii’s beaches, some of them wearing rather skimpy swimsuits. We hear about how Tracy once ran through a field naked.
On his computer, Mitchell (a kid of about 8 or 9) has a clip of two hamsters mating. When he talks about the Hawaiian creation legend, he mentioned it ends with Pele taking Lono and having 1,000 years of “revenge sex.”
A conversation revolves around Brian getting shot while in the service, and we see some of the damage that’s done to his body. We hear about secretly weaponized satellites.
One f-word. A half-dozen s-words. Also: “a–,” “b–ch” and “h—,” each used a handful of times. Jesus’ name is abused three times, God’s twice that many.
Ng gets pretty tipsy while drinking shots at a party, sometimes dancing as she drinks. Elsewhere, people drink beer, wine, whiskey, etc.
Brian apparently pocketed about $100,000 when he was working in Afghanistan—perhaps skimming from his informant funds. As I’ve alluded to, Carson misleads many.
The word aloha packs a lot of meaning into its three syllables. While it literally means “the breath of life,” it’s used in a dizzying number of ways, from hello and goodbye to communicating love, affection and peace. Hawaii is known as the Aloha State. Its unwritten law is the Aloha Spirit.
Aloha, the movie, tries to pack all these meanings and more into its 105-minute runtime. Brian—a stopover transient whose timetable dictates a mere five-day stay—winds up remaking his life, saying goodbye to his old self and hello to a new future. He embraces love and life in a way he hadn’t before, finding peace and affection. Such results, at least in the end, are pretty moving, with the most powerful cinematic moments getting filled with a sort of silent dialogue beautifully capturing the near-diaphanous, expansive power of that word, aloha.
But writer/director Cameron Crowe—perhaps best known for helming Jerry Maguire and, more recently,* We Bought a Zoo—adds other words to the mix, the f-word and s-word among them. And he stresses not just Hawaii’s spirit but its *spirits, garnishing his tale with many an ancient island legend and suggesting that these pagan myths may be more true than we realize.
I wish the film’s last 20 minutes somehow redeemed the whole thing. But they don’t, fully, and that means true aloha remains elusive here.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.