Paradise Hills opens with a lavish wedding in the distant future: based on the hair and wardrobe, you could imagine this story unfolding amongst The Hunger Games' Capital City elite. A docile young woman named Uma (Emma Roberts) is the bride, and as she sings a vow of wifely obedience to her rich, smug groom, we're immediately clued into Paradise Hills' heavy-handed brand of feminism. The film then flashes back in time a couple of months, to show us just how Uma got to this point.
As it turns out, Uma was actually an unruly upper class girl who, having refused to give up her working class boyfriend and marry for money, was shipped off to an island resort called Paradise, a hi-tech charm school for misfit society ladies. Here Uma and her fellow students/captives, including characters played by Danielle Macdonald, Mexican actress/singer Eiza González, and a woefully underused Awkwafina, were subjected to treatments both benign and bizarre, under the tutelage of a glamorous headmistress known only as The Duchess (Milla Jovovich).
You already know that any place called Paradise has to have a dark side, so while the plot slowly churns, we impatiently await the reveal of The Duchess's true intentions.
Paradise Hills has an interesting look, thanks to production designer Laia Colet and costume designer Alberto Valcárcel. (Like director Alice Waddington, the crew is 100% Spanish; the film was shot on Gran Canaria.) But the screenplay, by Waddington, hit-and-miss Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal), and American novelist Brian DeLeeuw, is a mess. Its contrived twists sort of come together at the end, but along the way they play out only as plot holes. (For example, why isn't Uma at all skeptical when she suddenly finds her forbidden boyfriend working on the island?) Its take on sexism and patriarchy is juvenile, its sci fi machinations labored. (The Duchess's climactic moment, which comes out of left field, is hilariously absurd.) Moreover, I found Emma Roberts too mousy; she never convinces as a willful heroine, and I don't think she has the magnetism to anchor a thriller – at least not this one.
In short, Paradise Hills is a dud. Its heart may be in the right place, but its mind is everywhere else, and its director, making her feature debut, is simply out of her depth.