If Paradise Hills put half the effort into its story that it does into costumes and production design, it would be a decent sci-fi film. Instead, Alice Waddington’s movie is content to crib from The Prisoner, The Stepford Wives, and The Hunger Games without bothering to understand or engage with the subtext of those stories. Paradise Hills wants to create a disturbing dystopia, but without any sense of danger or fear. Instead, it relies on weak twists that range from dull to laughably nonsensical.
At some point in the future or in an alternate reality (it’s never clear which), Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in a treatment facility on an island that looks like Disneyland by way of Jony Ive. She’s told by Duchess (Milla Jovovich), who runs the facility, that she’s supposed to be there for two months after rejecting a marriage proposal from the despicable Son (Arnaud Valois). Although Uma is weary of attempts to brainwash her, she reluctantly gives the treatment a shot while befriending fellow patients Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), Yu (Awkwafina), and Amarna (Eiza González), although Uma is the only one on the island who isn’t there voluntarily. As her “treatment” continues, Uma learns that the sinister facility isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For most of its runtime, Paradise Hills looks like it will be a story about what society demands of young women and how social and economic factors (the film’s society is divided into “Uppers” and “Lowers”) try to get them to conform to stereotypes to appease men. Yes, that’s something incredibly similar to Stepford Wives, but it’s still a worthwhile theme. Unfortunately, the story is too tepid to ever unnerve the audience. The characters are so thinly drawn that we can’t sympathize with them, and they easily disappear into the exquisitely adorned decor and costumes. Ironically, Paradise Hills is a movie that’s absorbed with how things look than saying anything interesting.
And to be fair, the design is outstanding. This is a great movie to look at, and it’s probably as close as we’ll come to an actual Final Fantasy movie (The Spirits Within doesn’t count for anything) with its hodgepodge of ostentatious regalia and futuristic setting. And you can kind of see where it’s going with how fairy tales are a way of telling young women that they’re damsels instead of heroes. But because the subtext of the film is so limp and distant, the aesthetics appear superfluous.
As Paradise Hills lurches through its third act, it goes off the rails completely, trading twists for anything remotely coherent. What was previously dull and lethargic becomes idiotic as the script appears to lose all interest in playing fair with the audience. I would admire the boldness if it had any thematic heft, but the surprises drain the movie of what little thoughtfulness it possessed.
There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by classics of the sci-fi genre, but Paradise Hills has nothing to add to the conversation. It just sits there, pretty and uninterested in being more than a stab at ideas that others did far better. It’s not enough to simply cobble together premises; you have to do something with them. Dystopias are meant to disturb.