Ewan Gleadow

Movie Review: Rebuilding Paradise

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Copyright: National Geographic

Californian forest fires of the past couple years have been devastating not just for the environment, but for the people that live there. A worrying notion it is to see such fierce and terrible wildfires, and Rebuilding Paradise documents the aftermath for those that lost everything but their lives to the most destructive forest fire the West Coast has ever seen. Opening with an assembly of footage from members of the public, there is a genuine fear among them as they reach out to some primitive instinct of survival. Praying to God, spritzing the blaze that has consumed their home with a garden hose, it would be minutely humorous if it weren’t so tragic, horrifying and emotionally charged.  

Having such a touching, fragile story at hand, it surprises me that Ron Howard is offered the chance to leap on this project. Perusing the ruined towns of Paradise, it is clear to see that the pre-fire and post-fire lifestyles and livelihoods will be in a state of permanent, often-changing circumstances. Worrying that may be, it is not brought to the attention of the audience clearly enough. Some moments understand that this is government red tape, tied hands and an inability to take responsibility, it plagues lives and society, and there is no silver lining. Nature may have begun this tragedy, but the system of governance behind it failed those in desperate need of aid. It is a shame, then, that Howard cannot take this any farther.  

As tragic this time may be, Howard does not have the eye of a documentarian. He has no scope of who he should speak to or why. Capturing the essence of these times and the horrors that unfolded, it feels that his crew wandered around, interviewing anyone and everyone willing to do so. The results are a mixed bag, with some interesting characters, but falling into the bureaucracy happens all too soon. There are pockets of great interest that Howard simply does not pursue. What the impact of the fire was on children and education is shown in pockets, but forgotten about swiftly. Granted, there is much to discuss, but Howard has no sense of pacing, leaping from one thread to another and attempting to tie them together through the overarching disaster that affected them all.  

It doesn’t quite manage that, though. Causation does not, in this instance, reveal correlation. Howard has crafted a solid documentary here, one that feels frustrating but endearing and of honest intent. His hack director degeneracy pushes through, unfortunately, with a soundtrack that feels akin to a disaster movie rather than a humanitarian crisis. Rebuilding Paradise is a charged, engaging documentary that relies on the people at the heart of this horror, but its technical merits are few and far between. Howard requires a fly-on-the-wall approach, but that Hollywood machinery kicks in, the faux dynamic is created. Sloppy, soppy, but detailing an immensely upsetting modern tragedy, and the after-effects of such an event.