REVIEW: PARADISE HILLS aims to be a dark fairytale on the importance of agency and individuality, but loses itself in placing aesthetic over a compelling storyline


Writer/director Alice Waddington’s PARADISE HILLS boasts lush and imaginative visuals in costume and production design, but the film’s point is lost in its emphasis on style over substance.

It’s evident in viewing PARADISE HILLS that Alice Waddington has something to say about female body image acceptance and the importance of feminism in actualizing your true self. PARADISE HILLS is a lush, visual journey of self-discovery for Uma (Emma Roberts), a member of a lower caste in her homeland who has been forced to visit the titular property so that she can be molded into the ideal mate for a literal prince (Arnaud Valois). The proprietor of Paradise Hills is the mysterious Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose motivation and origin are as murky as is the mysterious treatment the island offers for turning its visitors into the ideal wives, mistresses, and children that those who sponsor their stay wish them to be.

However, that message of self-discovery and self-actualization is lost in this script by Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo. Vigalondo’s own genre film history dealing with a development of female self-empowerment in a sheltered individual, 2017’s Colossal, was a muddled mess, and Paradise Hills similarly falls into that trap. The film is concerned with showing us that Uma, as well as Danielle McDonald’s Chloe, Awkwafina’s Yu and Eiza Gonzalez’ Amarna are all unique and don’t need what the Hills are offering. Yet, we’re treated to scene after scene of the stylized manner and clothing that the Duchess insists they wear. Look how pretty these gowns are! Look how cool this treatment these characters don’t need is! At best, it makes you question if these girls are so unique and against these machinations and are essentially captives, then why do they spend so much time taking the Duchess’ Yoga classes?

That’s not to say the message of the film isn’t without merit. It comes down to a case where a director who is primarily known for their visual flair not being able to edit that sense when building a narrative piece. This isn’t anything new in film; one need only look at Tarsem Singh’s film The Cell or Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals for examples of an emphasis on cool imagery sink the narrative of those films. Here, Waddington’s film is much like The Cell, with spins on religious iconography and medieval fashion overwhelming you from all directions. The other issue comes down to scripting; Vigalondo and DeLeeuw’s script from Waddington’s idea delivers something along the line of The Prince and The Pauper by way of The Stepford Wives by way of 2009’s Sucker Punch. Here, the film seems unwilling to make anyone the villain save Uma’s mother for wanting to social climb; even Uma’s would-be tailored Stepford replacement is essentially part of the classic Replacement Goldfish trope when she agrees to help Uma get revenge and gain her freedom because it suits the plot, not because the character has any agency. Ultimately, that’s the biggest flaw in the film; for a film that’s ostensibly about the importance of female agency, none of the characters in the film have any and the characters serve only to advance Uma’s narrative and drop like flies when they aren’t. Say what you will of Zach Snyder’s ill-fated feminist action film Sucker Punch, but each of those characters had fleshed out arcs and motivations. Here, we have Akwafina and Eiza Gonzalez essentially wasted by playing paper-thin cutouts of individuals who fall to the wayside and swept away like leaves when the plot no longer requires them. Strangest of all being Jovovich’s Duchess who oscillates between primary antagonist and fellow victim of the patriarchy to essentially becoming a spin on a movie monster by film’s end.

Paradise Hills has a lot of amazing visuals and a strong performance by Emma Roberts. That being said, it’s also overcooked with too many ideas for one film that are bogged down by the visual language of the film; one that makes you question what you’re even watching. There are cool ideas here and I enjoy science fiction films, but the film lacks focus. I look forward to seeing more from Waddington perhaps with a more measured hand in the visuals so the story doesn’t get so lost in the details.