The trailers for this melodramatically titled documentary, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden, had me hooked in a way that trailers just don't any more. Really, I usually show up in spite of the trailers because they're just chock full of spoilers. But documentary trailers, perhaps because they're not just bait to get you to come see your favorite masses of flesh dance in front of a bluescreen, tend to be a little bit more hook-y. (Like the Afternoon of a Faun trailer teases its dark twist excellently.)
And then, when it came out? Audiences were not thrilled and critics were sort of tepid, levelling that worst of all documentary critiques: long, plodding, slow, slog. But you can't always trust the first reviews, and the film has settled at a near 80% on RT for critics (though only a 67% for audiences). (UPDATE: Currently at 78/72.)
It is nearly two hours, but except for one (very good, but not entirely germane) digression of a young girl who thought she'd escaped the Galapagos only to end up spending her life there, it is not overlong. The interstitials between the dramatic story points are turtles and giant lizards and other fauna, but the movie never descends into Muscle Shoals style: "Here, have another 15 seconds of picturesque windmills" type padding.
The two hours really breezed by for me, if somewhat less so for The Boy. We both ranked it slightly under the near perfect Finding Vivian Maier but I'd put it pretty close up against that.
So, what's it about? The very essence of humanity. It's like "Gilligan's Island" on a diet of coconut milk and narcissism. In five years, seven adults alone on an island end up experience the entire gamut of existence. Well, maybe not the entire gamut so much as a hyper-malignant slice of it.
A lot of great developments that you should experience as you go, so I'll just outline the broad strokes:
A Nietzsche loving doctor leaves his family, and runs off with a besotted would-be intellectual woman (who also leaves her family) to the Galapagos so that he can live in solitude and work on his philosophy.
But just any old Galapagos island isn't isolated enough for this guy. No, he picks a completely empty island on which to meditate. Since he's interested in divesting himself of emotions, and not so much the lovey-dovey stuff, she quickly gets bored and since she is not really an intellectual, and positively disdainful of such bourgeois things as homemaking, she becomes a kind of pain in his ass.
Meanwhile, the newspapers are going nuts over these two, and their crazy nudist cult of satanism. (Seriously, the many varied ways the newspapers sensationalize and misrepresent this story to move copies is positively familiar.)
But this does prompt an interested science vessel to stop by and deliver some much needed 20th century luxuries to our inept intellectuals. This will be important later.
If things weren't crowded enough with the two of them on this 67 square mile island, it's not long before two more people show up! Another couple! And, horror of horrors, they're utterly bourgeois. (Their motivation appears to have been to get away from Hitler and the rising Nazi menace.)
It turns out that the new husband chose the island specifically because he knew the doctor was on it and his wife is pregnant.
Well, there goes the neighborhood. The doctor leads them to some caves far, far away from the little shack near the beach he and his live in.
The middle-class couple, presumably because they weren't trying to escape their values, immediately set about and make their little cave hospitable, and are soon thriving on the little island. This stokes some resentment among the intellectual class.
But the fun's not over. One more set of arrivals rounds out the cast. We have intellectuals and working folk, and last arrives royalty. A woman who calls herself a baroness shows up with her two husbands and lays claim to most or all of the island.
Now, obviously, no one with any real claim to a title strands themselves on an island far off the coast of Ecuador, but the Baroness manages to be convincing or charismatic (or possibly just slutty) enough to virtually win over every man she meets. And I guess we should be grateful since the documentary has copious footage due to her ambitions.
The papers go crazy again with her arrival, making up pulp level fiction about her activities.
And, in one of my favorite parts, when the science ship comes back, this time loaded with gifts for our intellectuals, she becomes furiously jealous and demands that the goods be distributed evenly among the island's occupants.
You can't make this stuff up. But you don't have to, because humans are ridiculously predictable, at least when it comes to behaving badly.
To add to the sordidness the Baroness brings is her two "husbands", one of whom is clearly, practically and literally a cuckold.
It's just an amazing, amazing story. I like to think that any random three couples on a desert island would most likely form a community and help each other out, and that it was just a particularly unfortunate mix. (People on other islands fared better.)
But as the movie comes close to saying, "Wherever you go, there you are."
So, using the Bit Maelstrom three-point documentary scale:
1. Subject matter. Obviously, I loved it. Though the characters are of no great note, they are very human indeed. I think it's impossible not to relate to this on some level, even as we laugh. (It reminds, somewhat, of the great King of Kong.)
2. Presentation. Very, very good. It could've been tighter. If all but the story of the seven adults on Floreana were excised, and a lot of the commentary, it could've come in 10-15 minutes shorter, probably.
3. Spin. This is one of those cases where, if there were any spin, you'd have to already know the subject coming in. It's possible, I suppose, but I didn't detect it.
It's been a great year for documentaries (Maier, Jodorowsky, The Last of the Unjust, Tim's Vermeer, etc.) and this fits in among the best. And unlike some of the others, you only need an interest in humanity to find this one fascinating.