The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari

PG, 98 minutes

4 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

The Volcano Rescue from Whakaari image courtesy Netflix


One bright, clear December morning several years back, a group of intrepid day-trippers keen to visit an active volcano off the north coast of New Zealand, walked into the caldera and never returned. This fine documentary details how it happened, and attempts to provide answers to important questions.

How could people lose their lives this way? It seems hardly possible that families and tour operators would take the risk of visiting Whakaari, also known as White Island, while there was the chance of an eruption. One wonders if a log of recent volcanic activity was available on the internet.

Two guides were among the dead. One of them, Hayden Marshall-Inman, was on his 1,111th trip guiding visitors to the island.

The alert level was 2 out of 3 but as one tourist recalls, ‘the guides were good with it, so I was good with it’

As the caldera revealed itself in its unearthly yellows, oranges and blues, and as the tourists walked past sulphur chimneys and across ground popping with steam, they may have been thinking that the danger was worth such a breathtaking sight. There is more than a hint of irony in the fact that the White Island tour company brochures that encouraged people to ‘get close to the drama’, actually talked up the danger in typically promotional style.

Why do we do it? I’ve done it. Stared down at the bubbling sulphur inside Mt Bromo from the rim of its caldera, and spent beachside holidays a short distance across the sea from Krakatoa, on the other side of Java. The thrill that comes with a rumble deep underground, and a distant plume of ash has a lot to answer for.

Movie culture with its disaster scenarios reflects something similar. It is interesting to hear one of the doco interviewees comparing the island to something out of Jurassic Park. It certainly looks like it. But this real-life human tragedy took place off the spectacular coast of NZ’s Bay of Plenty and in the company of the lovely Maori and pakeha people of the town of Whakatane, the home of White Island Tours.

The surge in adventure tourism is connected too, of course. As we spend more time operating within a minutely regulated environment day after day, watching the world through our screens, we long for the great outdoors with its big, wide unforgettable experiences.

On the other hand, there are few excuses for people who put others’ safety at risk. A young Australian who was 19 at the time lost his father, mother and sister. A young American couple on their honeymoon point out quite reasonably that they understood the calculated risk in observing nature up close, but hadn’t been able to make a fully informed decision.

Responsibility for the tragedy  is still unresolved, three years after the event that took the lives of 22 people, mostly family groups, and two guides

There were 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption, an event that was apparently quite small on the scale of such events, in the words of one expert.

Piece by piece, the day is put together, when an eruption that lasted two to three minutes changed lives forever. American director Rory Kennedy has, thankfully, elided the images of injuries sustained, but has at the same time skilfully reconstructed a sense of mounting terror. As we cut between survivor phone footage and audio, and interviews with those survivors, witnesses and those who self-selected as rescuers, the picture of a major human tragedy unfolds.

Jesse Langford in The Volcano Rescue from Whakaari. He lost his parents and sister. Image courtesy Netflix

The screenplay is a collaboration between Mark Bailey and Dallas Brennan, while executive producers include Hollywood heavy-hitters, Brian Glazer and Ron Howard.

There are harrowing accounts from the brave commercial pilots who flew into the dark clouds and rescued 12 of the victims, DIY rescue missions in light of the public safety no-fly zone that NZ authorities had set up immediately after the event. The survival window for victims of severe burns is one short hour. The pilots’ insights raise some critical questions about search and rescue.

Nature will always be beautiful one minute, dangerous the next.  No one can be sure they can read it. It’s a likely enduring message for people who watch this haunting anatomy of a disaster.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 December 2022. Rotten Tomatoes also publishes Jane’s reviews