The 400-Word Review: Rebuilding Paradise

By Sean Collier

July 31, 2020

Rebuilding Paradise

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In your mind, conjure up an image of hell.

Whatever you’re picturing has less fire in it than the opening scenes of “Rebuilding Paradise.”

Ron Howard’s bittersweet documentary begins with real-time footage captured on November 8, 2018, as the devastating blaze known as the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, Ca. Cellphone recordings and dash-cam videos depict staggering, apocalyptic scenes, as fire seems to engulf not just trees and structures but the ground and air.

While “Rebuilding Paradise” is nominally about the year after the fire, this is its most arresting sequence. Intellectual understanding of what a wildfire is and how dangerous it can be is nothing compared to these nightmare images.

From there, “Rebuilding Paradise” is fascinating and often inspiring — if not as impactful as its first moments. The close-knit, picturesque town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada is strikingly beautiful; pictures of residents framed at once by the town’s scenery and untold wreckage are bizarre and surreal.

The film has a handful of main characters, so to speak, including the town’s mayor and a tireless school superintendent. The impact, however, comes from the community-wide spread of the devastation. Now especially, when we’re unwillingly united by a different sort of natural disaster, considering the total devastation in Paradise — the fire either destroyed or severely damaged 95% of buildings in the town — is sobering.


Unfortunately, the film opts for inspiration over interrogation. The broader story in the wake of the Camp Fire was the liability of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, whose faulty equipment sparked the blaze; while a few minutes are handed over to a town-hall meeting with a company representative, Howard chooses not to pursue that ongoing saga.

While “Rebuilding Paradise” unequivocally acknowledges the role of climate change in incidents such as these, the film pays lip service to the question of continued habitability in fire-prone areas. Whether or not to move people back to an area that will certainly burn again is briefly addressed, dismissed and forgotten.

Perhaps that’s Howard’s message: Something about the endurance of the human will, or the love of home. “Rebuilding Paradise” demonstrates that ethos, showing the return of students to the eradicated high school’s football field for graduation. It’s a warm moment; with another hellscape like that depicted in the beginning of the film on the horizon, though, this may not be the time for placating.

My Rating: 5/10

“Rebuilding Paradise” is available via virtual cinema services.



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