If you’ve ever watched contrived science fiction for fun, being willing to ignore its barely sensical story points for the sake of tone, but secretly hoping it was splashed with a layer of pink glitter, then do I have the film for you. Director Alice Waddington’s feature debut, Paradise Hills, is the fluffy pastel answer to the science fiction evening fillers we’re so used to seeing toned blue, green, and yellow.
Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in a strange place, an inescapable island adorned in an aesthetic that matches someone’s grandmother’s tea set. She’s been sent there because she has declined to marry a man that would allow her to regain her family’s fortune. The island turns out to be an over-the-top retreat, reminiscent of a celebrity rehab facility, filled with wealthy young women sent there to change something about themselves. One has a drinking problem, another is overweight, and one just wants to listen to her music or something. The girls struggle to kick back and take in this super spa-like rehab center, especially Uma, who declines the entire exercise, especially the part where she is forced to watch loving videos of her would-be fiancé. Inspired by Amarna (Eiza González), a pop singer visiting the center to give up alcohol and focus on more mainstream music who’s also secretly plotting her escape, Uma decides to get the girls out of Paradise Hills, a place they notice is increasingly more sinister than they all first thought.
Paradise Hills is fun sci-fi that’s somewhat guilty of choosing style over substance, but that’s exactly what I wanted out of it. It didn’t much matter that each question was answered, issue resolved, or why a carousel unicorn being ridden side-saddle was the choice viewing seat for fiancé propaganda videos, because the movie is beautiful and incredibly fun. Paradise Hills is a movie that knows exactly what it is, and never tries to be anything else.
The most palpable problem with this film is the disconnect from the script to what’s on the screen. Though Waddington had a hand in the story, it often feels like screenwriters Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo and director Waddington never met each other, with some lines of dialogue feeling completely out of place. Certain twists don’t land and often ask more questions than they answer, but they work overall . Is there an explanation for what mystery night surgery is happening behind closed doors? Not really. But the surgical room scene is stunning and exciting and a welcome rising action towards the climax. Are there one too many twists that push the limits of buying into something? Perhaps, but it results in science fiction roses, so I can’t complain.
The thing about Paradise Hills is that it’s unapologetically femme. Of all the half-baked science fiction that ends in sunshine monsters and weird clones, I’ll take this feminine twist on the genre that’s the same, but in pink. There are unmistakable themes of womanhood, the expectations put on young women to be submissive, wives, and to look a certain way. The value of female friendship over competition is highlighted, with a focus on oppression of varying classes, the varying oppression of women in all classes, and female agency. Not every take on feminine oppression needs to be tinted dark red, and us gals deserve the sunny, shiny fun take on these persistent real-life themes, especially one this hopeful. Plainly, it’s empowering.
Alice Waddington’s background as a fashion photographer is on full display here. Each tableau feels like a fantasy shoot for a haute spread, making it easy to disregard the sometimes unbelievable scenario in favor of flowery mirrors and costumes The Hunger Games wish they thought of. Milla Jovovich looks like she is having the time of her life, taking bites out of and chewing on the flowery scenery.
Sci-fi fans know that not every heady “what if” scenario delivers on every ounce of story, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy watching them. Cult classic science fiction isn’t always a marvel of pure storytelling, but it doesn’t stop us from going back for more. Paradise Hills gives us that, toning it distinctly femme, because girls want sci-fi, too. I’ve watched all the Universal Soldier movies, rented Hollow Man with my family, and seen each Alien and Predator crossover with the utmost glee. Us gals deserved the Lisa Frank answer to those films, and Paradise Hills delivered. And while it’s easy to label it as vapid, it truly explores deeper female-focused themes. If you watched Surrogates, enjoyed The Island, and felt any interest in the trailer for Transcendence, then you owe it to yourself to watch Paradise Hills, a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing; to quote another fluffy pink goddess, Elle Woods, making those movies, “except for funner.”
Movie Score: 4/5