Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes documentary filmmakers eschew the typical methods of nonfiction filmmaking and deliver something that is much closer to a cinematic essay than a traditional narrative movie, but it can be hard to focus their arguments. Fern Silva manages to create one of the best essay films in recent memory with Rock Bottom Riser, an intriguing rumination on the intersection between nature and culture.
The core of the movie is footage of active Hawaiian volcanoes spewing lava, but there is a lot more to it. The film explores how these volcanoes play an integral role in Hawaiian culture through a series of clips, some more straightforward and observational and others more abstract and thought-provoking.
Although the portions of the movie about the volcanoes themselves are interesting, the more compelling arguments being made are about the interference of outsiders on the culture. The film challenges Westernization in a frank way unlike many other movies have in the past, and it will leave the audience reflecting on whether they are perpetuating the problem.
The main character of the movie is Hawaii itself, but Silva also gives the audience several more traditional subjects with whom they can identify. Although no single segment of the film lasts for more than a few minutes, there is enough development there that it serves as a decent emotional connection for the viewer.
With a runtime of an hour and ten minutes, the movie assembles its clips in a way that makes a strong argument. It doesn’t feel like Silva is just slapping together footage haphazardly. Everything is extremely deliberate in its presentation, and the result is an experience that feels cohesive and thoughtful.
There are some portions of the film that don’t have much in the way of dialogue or narration, but the volcano footage is so majestic and beautiful that it’s pretty mesmerizing. And the score that accompanies it is effective and sets the pace quite well, creating both suspense and awe for the viewer.
Other sections are a bit more dialogue-oriented, but that doesn’t mean that they are any more conventional. Only one or two moments in the movie as a whole fit within the traditional bounds of documentary filmmaking. A lot of them are a bit on the bizarre side but challenge the viewer to think about their preconceptions in a different light.
Rock Bottom Riser is an intriguing cinematic essay that is fascinatingly organized. Its abstract nature isn’t going to be for everyone, but the questions that it has to pose about some interesting issues make it worth checking out.
Rock Bottom Riser is now in theaters.