Directed by: Rory Kennedy
Starring: Mark Inman; Matt Urey; Lauren Urey; Jesse Langford; Geoff Hopkins; Kelsey Waghorn; Brian Depauw; Ngaroahiahi Patuwai Maangi; Tim Barrow; Mark Law; John Funnell
The power of Mother Nature is not the only thing on display in Rory Kennedy’s latest documentary, a gripping account that takes viewers up close to the disaster that unfolded off the coast of New Zealand in December 2019 when White Island, an active volcano, erupted with several dozen tourists still on it. In covering the chaotic aftermath as well as the daring, multi-pronged rescue mission in response, The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari captures humanity in a spectacle that’s both inspiring and ugly.
Prior to the 2019 eruption White Island, known to the indigenous Maori as Whakaari, was a popular tourist destination, offering cruise line passengers and locals alike a rare opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with one of the planet’s most active volcanoes. Accessible by a 90-minute boat ride from the town of Whakatāne on New Zealand’s North Island, the martian environment ensconces the curious (and brave-footed) in alien greens and mustard yellows, crystalline streams of superheated water and gaseous pockets. That the vast majority of the volcano is submarine puts it all the more in reach — you could actually walk right up to the edge of the crater and peek into the acid lake (just be sure to wear your mask).
Kennedy is an Oscar-nominated documentarian whose experience dealing with raw and emotional human stories serves her well here. Inspired by an April 2020 article published in Outside Magazine, she depicts the catastrophic event with incredible urgency, grace and empathy, immersing the viewer in a minute-by-minute procedural, and in a place that goes from picturesque to pure hellscape in the blink of an eye. The visuals are both stunning and terrifying, a pulse-pounding mixture of cell phone footage and dramatic aerial shots.
The cinematography is but one element that gives you a sense of the scale and severity of the situation. Adding to that is the perspective offered by the far-flung pilots who dropped what they were doing to fly into a dangerous environment and against government protocol. But it’s hearing from those who lived through the explosion, such as American newlyweds Lauren and Matt Urey, who chose the spot for their honeymoon, that makes The Volcano a moving account of survival and perseverance — a testament to pain but also bravery and selflessness. For some, the decision to help others was a simple calculation.
Yet not everything is so black-and-white. The film becomes more complicated when addressing the bigger picture, the ethical debate surrounding who should be held accountable. The day-trip-turned-nightmare was an international tragedy in which 22 tourists lost their lives and another 25 sustained horrific burns. Availing herself to the expertise and experience of a variety of sources, from the tangata whenua to passionate tour guides, young helicopter pilots to first-aid responders, Kennedy allows the discussion to unfold from a number of perspectives, never inserting her own opinion or putting too fine a point on things.
Her work, as thrilling as it can be sickening, doesn’t need a scapegoat to be effective as a reminder of nature’s cruel indifference to our curiosity.
Moral of the Story: A thoroughly gripping documentary, full of emotional power and acts of bravery, and that can be hard to watch at times. Although director Rory Kennedy remains respectful by largely avoiding graphic imagery, the details shared in interviews are grisly and can be upsetting to hear.
Running Time: 98 mins.
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