The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari Review – harrowing and visceral

By Marc Miller
Published: December 17, 2022 (Last updated: January 22, 2024)
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari Review
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari Image (Credit to Netflix)


Harrowing and visceral while also finding the human center, The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is wholly engrossing.

At first, Academy-Award-nominated filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s (Downfall: The Case Against Boeing) The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari appears to have begun its journey at a pace too slow for its own good. The camera captures the interviewees as normal subjects. It is, frankly, coming across as nothing spectacular. In fact, the documentary seems timid and standard.

However, you’ll notice the frame deliberately chooses to frame subjects off-kilter and never the same. Some will have close-ups; others will be panned out. The scenes of climbing onto the tour boat off White Island’s volcano are your standard reenactments. The thought will cross your mind why would anyone want to go back to such a tragic, triggering place? That’s when Kennedy generates an unusual, robust amount of dread in her documentary film that the viewer cannot shake.

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari Review

Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer, Kennedy’s film tells the story of the Whakaari volcanic eruption that claimed 25 lives. White Island is home to the raging, smoke-fuming beast here. Daily tours are given off the coast of this New Zealand island. You will hear stories from local tour guides, rescue workers, a couple on their honeymoon, and family members talking about their harrowing stories.

The island is the country’s most active volcano, going strong for over 150 years. The cone volcano erupted regularly from 1975 to 2000. After a brief hibernation, the island began to experience eruptions in 2012 annually every couple of years. This story occurred in 2019 when visitors began daily treks with tour guides arming themselves with smartphones, getting ready to fill the social media site, Instagram, with once-in-a-lifetime photos and memories they will never forget. And that’s where The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari grabs you and won’t let you go. Like Ron Howard’s spectacular opening sequence in Rebuilding Paradise, Kennedy expertly takes you inside the mindset of the survivors.

You slowly start to notice the camera catch burns scars on the subject’s arms and legs you didn’t notice before—some on the neck, forehead, chin, and even lips. Many will catch themselves talking about loved ones in the past tense. Stories of a loud bang and an eruption of black smoke will be told, shown in cell phone photos. That’s when the film shifts into high gear, unveiling the footage is real, and that photo of that igniting blast is now on video, with everyone running for their lives. You cannot help but be moved by each person’s story, from the tragic (a young man decided he had to leave his family behind) to the eye-opening (a husband has the hand mark of his wife gripping his arm during the searing blast).

Is The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari worth watching?

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is a harrowing and visceral tale, but what separates Kennedy’s documentary from others of its ilk is she finds the human center of the up close and personal tragedy that occurred here. This documentary film is a wholly engrossing feature that’s begging to be made into a feature film.

What did you think of the documentary The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari? Comment below.

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