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The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari film review — explosive but sentimental documentary

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This competent documentary offers solid reporting on the volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s uninhabited Whakaari (or White Island), a sudden event in 2019 that claimed the lives of 22 people who were visiting at the time. Interviews with some of the survivors are quilted together with distressing footage they themselves shot at the moment of catastrophe.

That in turn is laid beside aerial photography of the island that eerily captures its lake of acid and swaths of landscape covered in steam and bright yellow sulphur deposits. It may now be the best way to witness Whakaari’s desolate beauty because, Lord knows, no one will want to go near the place after seeing this film.

Litigation continues over the fact that tourists and guides were allowed to clamber up what was known to be an active volcano. At one point, someone mentions that until 2019 it had politely waited to erupt only when no one was around to be injured. If that’s true, then something must have really pissed Whakaari off for it to take so many innocent lives. Or was it just human folly and greed that drove tour organisers to make money from such risky adventure tourism?

A film-maker such as Werner Herzog (no stranger to volcanoes) might have dwelt on such larger questions. Instead, director Rory Kennedy emphasises all the usual “nobility of the human spirit” stuff and focuses on the bravery of the pilots who rushed to the scene.

The resulting film pushes all the expected sentimental buttons and jerks a tear or two, especially when the grandmother of one of the deceased notes that she can see the volcano from almost every window in her house on New Zealand’s North Island. But viewers might sense that there’s a more sublime dimension to the story lurking just under the surface like a bubbling reservoir of magma.

★★★☆☆

Online in the UK from December 16 and in the US now

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