There’s always a way to get what you want.
It’s Uma’s (Emma Roberts) wedding day and everyone is excited. She sings a song while her affluent guests clap and dance, the conversations surrounding her making mention of how much work she’s put into making this whole occasion possible. The idyllic scene’s ornate beauty and plastic smiles seem to be in a permanent state of universal bliss until a woman lets Uma know that her new husband (Arnaud Valois‘ Son) waits in their bedroom. Here is where the happy bride pauses to gaze upon her mother (Nancy Jack‘s Eloise) and then at the door—guarded by two men in red armor. Is it reticence? Fear? We’re unsure because the next cut finds her in bed beckoning Son near before director Alice Waddington takes us back two months earlier.
Screenwriters Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw (from a story by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca) suddenly shift Paradise Hills towards a comfortable prison cell with a dirtied and confused Uma waking without recollection of having arrived. A voice is heard over a loudspeaker as two immaculately dressed men enter with silver platters of food and drink only to have them knocked over as she runs past seeking an escape. There’s nowhere to go, though, as this strange place exposes itself to be an island in the middle of the ocean at least ten miles from shore. And for some reason nobody else seems to mind. The other girls (including Danielle Macdonald‘s Chloe, Awkwafina‘s Yu, and Eiza González‘s Amarna) understand what’s happening and are willing to let it play out.
Here’s the gist: these female inhabitants have been conscripted by parents and guardians into what headmaster The Duchess (Milla Jovovich) considers to be a reform school for “uppers” (what the elite within this futuristic society are called opposite the obvious “lowers” who are left fending for scraps below). Maybe it’s to combat anxiety, weight issues, alcoholism, or, in Uma’s case, insolence. The thing about the latter, however, is that she has very good cause for it. The man who demanded this re-education (Son) has done so because Uma rejected his marriage proposal. Her mother was furious and he disappointed since his hand was to be seen as an opportunity to turn her family’s fortunes around after the untimely demise of her father. Uma sees it as a betrayal.
So while Chloe treats everything as an all-expenses paid makeover vacation that won’t amount to much, Yu feels trapped because her family won’t allow for her return home until she’s “cured” of the awkwardness born from ascending the social ladder under her “upper” aunt and uncle’s wings. And while Amarna bides time until her record label decides letting their popstar go back on tour is more fruitful, Uma will stop at nothing to leave the first chance she gets because she refuses to become Son’s wife while she still loves another man (Jeremy Irvine‘s Markus). Chloe and Yu supply emotional support, but Amarna’s celebrity might just help them draw-up a plan for a moonlight escape. What they don’t know yet, though, is that the night holds dark secrets.
Paradise Hills counts on the ambiguity of those secrets because our ignorance to the full story keeps us unbalanced. There’s also ambiguity where some characters are concerned. Is Amarna looking out for Uma’s wellbeing or does she have ulterior motives? Is Markus (who applies for a job on the island to be close to her) acting on her behalf or his own? And what’s the deal with the saccharine sweet Duchess and her infinite optimism? We know there must be something else driving her besides altruism and the first sign of real danger to her business brings out a mean streak that piques our interest even more. So while Uma must eventually walk the hallways at night to discover the truth, which friends come along for the ride?
The answers to these questions aren’t too difficult to decipher as things progress while the big revelation at the end won’t prove too hard to accept either considering its prevalence in these types of films. That familiarity shouldn’t, however, taint what otherwise proves to be an attractive journey through gorgeous sets, costumes, and special effects (when applicable). Waddington has created a world with a darkly skewed Alice in Wonderland vibe (roses and looking glasses abound) that absorbs us in its mystery of carousel horses, spiked headphones, and hologram pendants with immortalized memories. And while the climactic reveal is wholly unnecessary where it comes to investment (a simpler explanation would have sufficed and perhaps made what occurs later a bit less convenient), its orchestration is compelling nonetheless.
Vigalondo and DeLeeuw ultimately need a lot to fall into place and utilize their characters to facilitate it by forcing them onto rigid paths more worried about plot than authentic motivations. This happens when you work backwards from the endgame hinted at the start—telling the pieces where they must go rather than giving them the autonomy to build the puzzle themselves. The memorable aesthetic does its best to distract us from those strings (and the shallow social commentary that is itself used to propel narrative more than say anything substantial), ensuring we have fun on the ride as guilty pleasure enthusiasm usurps any flirtations with thoughtful discourse. It’s thus a pretty gateway into a genre that excels at the more mature depictions of similar themes it offers.
 (L-R) Emma Roberts as Uma and Eiza González as Amarna in the fantasy/sci-fi/thriller, “PARADISE HILLS,” a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Manolo Pavón.
 Awkwafina as Yu in the fantasy/sci-fi/thriller, “PARADISE HILLS,” a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Manolo Pavón.
 (L-R) Milla Jovovich as The Duchess and Emma Roberts as Uma in the fantasy/sci-fi/thriller, “PARADISE HILLS,” a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Manolo Pavón.