Showing at the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival, Fern Silva’s debut feature “Rock Bottom Riser” experiments with what exactly a movie is. It blurs the line between documentary and narrative storytelling, with most of the film consisting of shots of Hawaii’s natural beauty mixed with monologues, voice-overs and lectures on the history of Polynesian exploration, the astronomy and the role of the modern scientific community on the islands. There is no exact progression in the events of the film, many scenes that seem completely unrelated to each other follow each other.
The film’s depiction of nature on the island is unlike anything else you’re likely to see. It doesn’t rely on wide, sweeping vistas of beaches or scenic jungles, instead preferring to give audiences tight, simple shots of slow-moving lava, trees swaying slowly in the wind, and waves crashing over a beach. Images often lack a sense of scale, causing large objects to suddenly appear incredibly small with just a slight change in camera zoom. The hypnotic visuals of flowing lava particularly contribute to a psychedelic viewing experience, the film’s strongest aspect.
The film is at its weakest when it tries to go beyond its images and tell a compelling story. There is no real plot in the film, sometimes following real events and sometimes short stories tangentially related to the aforementioned life events. It’s all the more disappointing because the heart of the film is so gripping, following the controversial construction of a telescope on Mount Mauna Kea. A particularly poignant moment is when the narrator reports that peaceful attempts by Indigenous groups to prevent the construction of the telescope have been reported as “threatening acts of violence.” However, this is also preceded by an overly long scene where three guys are blowing vape rings to loud EDM. There might be a deeper meaning behind this scene related to the harmful effects of nicotine on native people, but it’s so obscured behind a murky story structure that, in the moment, you feel like your time is up. at best wasted and deliberately misused at worst.
Several small technical choices made in the film reveal a lack of precision behind the creation of the film. Some of the smaller decisions in this movie made me realize the lack of a bigger picture, like the slight overuse of echo during certain voiceovers or the lack of cinematic cohesiveness in individual scenes. This is not to criticize the film’s editing and production value; much of the work done in this film is impressive. However, some of these seemingly inconsequential decisions just help to make this movie feel like it’s not built on a solid foundation. Small details can often get lost in the process of making a feature film, but as those missteps begin to add up over time, they can only be forgiven.
In “Rock Bottom Riser,” there are incredible movie bits that are sadly lost in muddled storytelling. I would really like to see a similar attempt, but with some experimental aspects to let the exceptional aspects stand out.
Daily art writer Zach Loveall can be reached at [email protected].