Volcano (1997)

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.
--Roger Ebert on reviewing the 1994 family film North, which was HIS by the sound of it

Everybody has one. There are no exceptions.

It is the antithesis of entertainment.

It symbolizes everything you hate about Hollywood.

It exists for no other purpose than to watch you squirm.

It is that one particular movie that just PISSES YOU OFF.

And everybody has one. Maybe it's Batman and Robin, or Battlefield Earth, or perhaps the entire filmography of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

This one is mine.

Volcano is one of several big-budget apocalypse movies which came out in the late 1990s. You know the ones I'm talking about--Armageddon, Deep Impact, Independence Day, the ones where mammoth-sized special effects level entire metropolises between implausible plot points and moments of saccharine sentimentality and anvilicious patriotism. Some might call them "popcorn flicks" or "guilty pleasures" and tell you to just roll with them and have fun, but strip off the CGI polish and there will be king-sized plot holes, an insufferable script and every stock character under the sun lying underneath. Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay might not have had careers now if not for this trend.

I won't bore you with too much detail on the plot, since you could fit a synopsis of the film inside of a fortune cookie, so here it is in a nutshell: early one morning, a geyser of lava suddenly erupts from the La Brea tar pits and spills out onto Wilshire Boulevard, and it's up to Emergency Management director Tommy Lee Jones and geologist Anne Heche to stop it from destroying the city.

I've never been to L.A. before, but I've heard the shopping is FANTASTIC.

But wait a minute. You're probably asking to yourself, "A volcano? In the middle of Los Angeles? Can that really happen?" I'm glad you asked...

Los Angeles is on one side of the San Andreas Fault, where tectonic plates shift and give them the occasional earthquake. However, San Andreas is a fault where two tectonic plates move PAST each other. In order for them to host an active volcano, they would have to be at a fault where one plate moves UNDER the other plate, where magma is produced from the melted crust. If you really want to find a volcano in the continental United States, try the Pacific Northwest, where Mount St. Helens is, or along the southern coast of Alaska.
(Source: http://www.laalmanac.com/geography/ge07.htm)

Incidentally, some other filmmakers did look further north, and made rural Washington the setting for Dante's Peak, another volcano film starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton that came out three months before Volcano, so anyone who saw both films within that time frame could already tell that Volcano is a far less credible film by comparison.

So, sorry if I've spoiled the film's plausibility for you...though it does a pretty good job of that by itself.

The first thing you notice is that a lot of the scenes are supplemented with a random news anchor reporting on exactly what we're seeing on screen. Also, the OEM office shows TV news broadcasts on one of their big screens at all times. At least EIGHTY PERCENT of the film consists of news reporters giving on-the-spot accounts of our heroes and their heroic acts of heroism and it never occurs to any of them to, oh, I don't know, RELAY EVACUATION ROUTES OUT OF THE CITY!! All of them are treating this inner-city volcanic eruption as some kind of feature story and appear to be competing for some sort of major news broadcasting award without thinking that their audience might be roasting to a crisp right now.

One of them takes the time to do a feature on a team of veterinarians who are treating the victims "who can't tell you where it hurts." Awwwwwwwww.

All that's missing are some credit card logos, a toll-free number and a song you can slit your wrists to.

What else do you think of when you think of Los Angeles? Hollywood...beaches...Valley girls...we've already had a gratuitous looting scene...oh yeah! Racist cops!

Cut to Stanley Avenue, where the residents are struggling to put out the fires as the lava slowly--


YESSSSSSS! THE DOG MADE IT! Dozens of people are burning to death but at least the dog made it out okay!

Err, where was I? Oh, right...

An African-American resident wonders why there aren't any fire trucks around, and goes down to the disaster zone on Wilshire to get some help. He tries to ask one of the firemen to send someone over to help with his neighborhood but then is handcuffed OUT OF NOWHERE by a Caucasian LAPD officer on charges of harassing the rescue worker. Not much else comes of this--the black man just stands around making wisecracks and blatantly referencing Rodney King until he eventually realizes that they are doing this to keep the lava out of his neighborhood, and ONLY THEN does he decide to lend them a hand, and ONLY THEN do the policemen send fire trucks to his block. It's a completely superfluous subplot with no other purpose than to shoehorn some social commentary into this big-budget disaster flick.

"I am an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department, and BOY do I hate black people."

There are a great deal of geological inaccuracies in this film, not the least of which are the many, many scenes of people and animals standing inches away from lava and not dying. For instance, the La Brea tar pit volcano should not produce as much lava as shown in the film and as much ash fall as shown in the film at the same time. Lava is incredibly hot, but we see Tommy and Anne hanging from a steel fire ladder over the lava river, and while the soles of their shoes begin to smoke, the ladder is apparently not too hot to hold on to. While rescuing passengers from a stranded subway train that is slowly melting around them, a subway worker makes a tear-jerking heroic sacrifice by jumping into the lava pool to get close enough to throw the last passenger to safety before he slowly dissolves away like the Wicked Witch of the West.

It's about as factual as you can expect from a volcano movie where the characters don't even know what lava is. Tommy Lee Jones doesn't even know what MAGMA is, and the on-the-scene reporters describe it as something that looks like lava. IT IS LAVA YOU MORONS!! WHAT DID YOU THINK COMES OUT OF A VOLCANO, SOFT FROZEN YOGURT!!?!?

"C'mon man, jump! The lava's not that hot apparently!"

But perhaps the biggest slap in the face to anyone who has even took a class on earthquakes and natural disasters in college is Mr. Jones' ultimate plan to stop the lava: construct a dam at the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue to bring this deadly river to a halt. Well, the only flaw that I can see is that the dam is curved AWAY from the lava instead of TOWARDS the lava where the current will help strengthen it. But if it's made of something that's strong enough to withstand a river of molten rock, it might just--

Uhh...concrete? Those freeway barriers are made of CONCRETE? Molten lava is already hot enough to disintegrate rock, I don't think concrete's going to stop--

And now they're spraying it with fire hoses? Do you know how much water it takes to cool molten rock? That's not gonna--

Why are they flying helicopters around a volcanic eruption with heavy ash fall? You do NOT fly a helicopter around a volcanic eruption with heavy ash fall! The ash gets sucked into the engine, clogs it and you CRASH!! Hell, Dante's Peak addresses this, and it came out ALMOST THREE MONTHS BEFORE this film!

But never mind, somehow everything I've just mentioned works. The lava flow is stopped and also cooled down, all the newsmen are ecstatic and all the firemen shout in jubilation.

But wait! This crisis is not over yet! Because Anne Heche has detected a second river of lava flowing through the subway tunnels, and it's expected to come out just outside the Beverly Center, near Cedars-Sinai Hospital where many doctors and patients--including Tommy Lee Jones' daughter--are at right now!!

Did I mention Tommy Lee Jones's character has a daughter (Gaby Hoffmann)? An estranged thirteen-year-old girl in a divorced family whose father is just too busy to spend time with her? Who is an annoying, whiny little brat with no sense of self-preservation? She has a conniption during an earthquake, clutches a teddy bear while riding with her father to the scene of the first eruption, and after she's injured by a "lava bomb" is carried into the token Asian doctor's jeep and screams for daddy as she's driven away. I'll admit her character does develop as the film goes on, in that she becomes less whiny, but otherwise her only purpose in this is to look as helpless as possible as she's conveniently put in distress whenever the plot says so. No wonder she still needs a babysitter.

Anyway, in the closing moments, Tommy Lee Jones has two skyscrapers knocked down to create another concrete dam (since it worked SO WELL the first time) to divert the lava from the second geyser into a trench leading into the Pacific Ocean, flowing past and severely lowering property values of several residential blocks along the way, when his daughter is placed in peril YET AGAIN when she tries to find a little boy who for no reason wanders away from the shelter and into one of the buildings to be demolished; Jones slow-motion runs in to save them, and they all get caught in the blast. We get a few moments of did-they-or-didn't-they suspense before, hip hip hooray, the three of them survive the explosion. BY SOME MIRACLE Jones' plan works YET AGAIN, the writers squeeze in one last we're-all-the-same moral when the boy notices everyone has the same skin color with soot on their faces, and then we get a cleansing rainstorm of cautious optimism as Anne Heche drives Jones, his daughter and their dog who for no reason was brought to the scene out of the movie.

Oh goody. Fox News is here. Now we can get the conservative side of this disaster as well as the liberal side.

Volcano is a lot more than a run-of-the-mill late-90s disaster movie. It is also an analysis of the human psyche which explores the inner frailties and strengths of man and comes to the inevitable conclusion that whatever we are, black or white, rich or poor, young or old, we are all brothers and sisters.


Special effects and Tommy Lee Jones' acting aside, the script is a mess, the plot is unrealistic, the characters are about as complex as an arithmetic problem, the cliches come at you one after another, and the social commentary is relentlessly hammered into your brain. Nitpickers like me will find the movie particularly frustrating--it gets everything wrong, at the very least everything about factual volcanoes. It is, as many disaster films of its time essentially are, all sound and fury signifying nothing - nothing but a story that forces you to care about people you just don't care about and is so corny you should watch it with butter and salt handy.

So if you're looking for a late-1990s volcano-themed disaster movie with intense action, interesting characters and a gripping story...watch Dante's Peak. Fewer scientific anomalies, and the only bit of melodrama is the part where the kids' grandmother dies.

"But Daddy, the whole city is now sitting on top of an active volcano. What if it erupts a THIRD time?"
"...Hey, who wants to go to Disneyland?"

1 comment:

Tucsoncoyote said...

Volcano (in L.A.)( It's right up there with garbage like the TV movie 10.5 (and the up and coming San Andreass)

Frankly if you want a real volcano move and (I mean fairly real as there are still a few hokey spots) Try Dante's Peak... Seriously , Volcano in LA is perhasp the worst concept for avolcano movie ever.. and in fact Tommy Lee Jones just kills the moive..(Agent J is cool, buta FEMA Disaster relief Head, he's not..

Avoid this movie at all costs.. You have been warned..