'Paradise Hills' Review: Emma Roberts Leads This Vibrant Vision Of Sci-Fi Fantasy [Sundance]

A stunning, vibrant fairy tale tinged with suspense and packed with riveting ideas, Alice Waddington's Paradise Hills is one of the most visually spectacular movies of the year so far.

Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in an unfamiliar room, with servants doting on her and calling her "mademoiselle." Understandably freaked out, she immediately makes a break for it, only to discover she's trapped on a small, beautiful island called Paradise – an expensive, twisted facility overseen by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich) and designed to strip any individuality from the young women sent there before they're returned to society as "improved" versions of their former selves. Paradise is breathtaking – a series of gorgeous gardens, picturesque cliffs, and beach caves encircling an elegant, sumptuous estate –but like all the other women there, Uma is being kept against her will. She turned down a proposal from a rich douchebag, and her family sent her there to convince her to change her mind.

The Duchess introduces Uma to her new roommates (Awkwafina, constantly wearing headphones with spikes on them, and Patti Cake$ star Danielle Macdonald, who's overweight but totally happy with herself), and the trio eventually makes friends with a pop singer named Amarna (Baby Driver's Eiza Gonzalez), sent to Paradise by her record label. (The label didn't like the fact that Amarna was beginning to express herself as an artist.) The majority of the movie is spent trying to figure out just what the hell is going on, with the new friends bonding as they try to solve the mystery of the strange facility and resist the Duchess' attempts to fundamentally change them.

Before the premiere, director Alice Waddington told us that this script (she has story credit, while Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw wrote the screenplay) is a tribute to her teenage self, a girl who loved sci-fi and fantasy stories like Ender's Game, The Lord of the Rings, and The NeverEnding Story but never saw herself on screen. There are hints of those influences throughout, but Paradise Hills mostly feels like an empowering, female-centric fable with a smattering of sci-fi touches throughout.

In Waddington's world, the rich are called "Uppers" (they have flying cars, no big deal) and the poor are "Lowers," forced to take unthinkable jobs to survive. In one scene, Uma is strapped to a white carousel horse and elevated (almost literally put on a pedestal) in a cavernous marble room, where she's forced to watch videos of her would-be fiancé trying to convince her that he's not such a bad guy after all (Serious shades of A Clockwork Orange.) While the mystery drives the plot, the themes of women fighting back against a patriarchal society remain at the fore. For these characters, to conform is to die.

The film is narratively satisfying, thematically resonant, and features excellent performances from its whole cast – for most first-time features, those achievements alone would be enough to consider it a success. But Paradise Hills has all that and more, and its jaw-dropping visual style is where it truly shines. Waddington comes from a costume design background, and that's evident from the get-go: the girls wear white uniforms that look like a cross between a tutu and medieval armor, while the Duchess slinks around in a variety of high-concept gowns, one of which looks like a rose petal. Every dollar of this low-budget movie is on the screen, and the production design is dazzling in the way it adds to the film's fairy tale vibe. The cinematography is lush and lavish, with each shot exquisitely composed to make the most of this impressive setting.

Some may criticize Paradise Hills as a typical case of style over substance; I don't agree with that, but even if I did, when its fairy tale world is this brilliantly actualized (it's the best fairy tale world I've seen on screen since Tarsem Singh's The Fall), that wouldn't stop me from telling everyone I know that they should make it a priority to see the movie as soon as possible.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10