The most devastatingly cinematic images in “Rebuilding Paradise” arrive in the first 10 minutes. This documentary, directed by Ron Howard, opens with (mainly first-person) footage of the November 2018 wildfire that ravaged Paradise, Calif. We’re told it’s morning, but the sky suggests the dead of night. Traffic backs up. Horses run free. The low, tonal rumblings of the score — by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe — add to the sense of watching an apocalypse, or perhaps an alien invasion.
While the subsequent visuals aren’t as striking, the drama scarcely ebbs. Howard keeps the focus on the residents of Paradise. Several are introduced in detail as they grapple with how — or whether — to return. Nearby homes are scarce. The water is contaminated. The school district’s superintendent says eight out of nine schools were damaged or destroyed. (We see makeshift classroom space in a mall.) And the residents, while navigating the civic complexities of reconstituting the town, and while living in a place that still poses hazards (a pyrogeographer says that controlled burning will make the woods safer and less prone to spreading fire), also need to care for their health.
A film like “Rebuilding Paradise” could be made about other climate-change-driven catastrophes — a notion that the closing montage makes explicit. But this particular movie has a special timeliness: Watching Paradise’s high schoolers graduate at their athletic field — something initially thought to be improbable — inevitably raises the question of how the district will fare through the pandemic. Though it might seem generic in some respects, “Rebuilding Paradise” resonates with the moment.
Rated PG-13 for terrifying fires, and PTSD. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.