The 1970s were the golden age of the disaster film, and producer Irwin Allen is the undisputed “Master of Disaster” with The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure still being the gold standard of the genre. But when the 80s rolled around, the well had just about dried up on the disaster film; thus, when Irwin Allen’s film When Time Ran Out bombed horribly at the box office, it kind of put the genre in a coma, that is, until CGI carnage would resurrect it in the 90s. So what went wrong with When Time Ran Out? Was it a case of a producer being completely bereft of ideas? Or was it the fact that most of the film’s $20 million dollar budget was spent on location shooting, instead of on the much needed special effects?
Disaster films often suffer from one key problem, and it’s that they’re basically soap operas that are simply interrupted by some man-made or natural catastrophe – whether it be an earthquake or a building on fire – and the numerous characters we are introduced to in the moments preceding the disaster events, with all their personal drama and baggage, are somehow supposed to make us care about the survivors. When a small band of people crawled their way up through the bowels of the ship in The Poseidon Adventure, we as an audience were at the edge of or seats, we wanted this plucky group of heroes to make it to safety, but in the case of When Time Ran Out, we have a volcano movie that is so bad that if the Hawaiian island (where this story takes place) was to sink to the bottom of the pacific with all hands, no one would care.
This film is just overloaded with characters – all in search of a plot – and none of them have more than two dimensions. We first meet hotel magnate Shelby Gilmore (William Holden), who wants to make his secretary Kay Kirby (Jacqueline Bisset) his seventh wife, but she is still in love with Hank Anderson (Paul Newman), an oil rigger who she apparently broke up with years ago to work with Shelby. Then we have Shelby’s partner, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), who is cheating on his wife Nikki (Veronica Hamel) with his hotel manager, Iolani (Barbara Carrera), and she’s been dodging her own boyfriend’s proposals. The island guests include retired circus high wire stars Rene Valdez (Burgess Meredith) and his wife Valentina Cortese, who suffers from a heart condition, and then there is Francis Fendly (Red Buttons), a bonds smuggler who is being tailed by New York cop Tom Conti (Ernest Borgnine). Is that enough victims? You say you want more? Well how about we spend some time with one of Hank’s oil-rig workers named Tiny Baker (Alex Karras), who has a wager going with cockfighting rival Sam (Pat Morita), and Sam’s wife Mona (Sheila Allen) who owns a local bar. After meeting all these people we are just begging for the island to explode.
It’s clear early on that Irwin Allen and company are not out to do anything new or interesting with the genre, and the biggest tip off to this fact is in the casting of James Franciscus as the asshole hotel owner. He doesn’t want to evacuate the island simply because he his is an idiot and an asshole, and this is basically the same character he played in The Towering Inferno — only in that film he was simply the idiot who would be responsible for the death of hundreds, while in this movie, he is also a cheating bastard and all around douche-bag. The film even lifts the scene of a mob of people charging a helicopter, only in The Towering Inferno it was a panicky mob trying to be rescued, while in When Time Ran Out, this group tries to steal Paul Newman’s helicopter, and they overload it and crash. It’s like Irwin Allen and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant wanted to make the same movie, but dumber and with less likable characters.
Science Note: Paul Newman’s character operates an oil rig near an active volcano. Not only is this stupid on the basis of safety, but with an active volcano there is not enough time between eruptions for any petroleum products to be deposited or to form.
The script is simply chock full of some of the stupidest ideas imaginable, like having a scientific research/monitoring facility on the lip of a volcano’s crater, or having said facility outfitted with a “bathysphere” for some moronic up close inspections of the magma.
Overwrought drama and bad science will not necessarily kill your disaster movie – The Rock’s San Andreas is proof of that – but you have to deliver on the goods when it comes to the actual disaster, and this film fails utterly on that expectation. In the roughly two hour running time we barely getting any real volcanic carnage – the monitoring station falls into the volcano, the airport runway buckles, and a tidal wave wipes out the nearby town – but that’s about it, and the volcano itself looks about as convincing as an eighth grade science project.
Science Note: At one point, lava bombs hit near Spangler’s hotel — exploding in a fiery conflagration — and Irwin Allen took the name “lava bomb” a little too literally, for in reality they are just blobs of melted rock and not something that explode as if made of nitroglycerin, as they do in this film.
I’m not sure why Irwin Allen went to all the expense of shooting on location in Hawaii, because aside from some boring moments of Paul Newman picnicking on the beach with Jacqueline Bisset, or the caravan of courage consisting of a bunch of cars fleeing the lava (minus shots of actual lava) through the Hawaiian countryside, we don’t see much of Hawaii — most of the film takes place on obvious sets and in sound-stages.
When Time Ran Out is the worst example of the disaster genre, as not only is it full of the most boring cliché characters imaginable, but it didn’t spend the money where it was needed. If they had dropped half the cast, maybe they could have afforded actual shots of lava, and instead of Paul Newman sleepwalking through his part – dreaming of his salad dressing empire – we could have had an actual hero to root for. We also got your standard “Boo-hiss” villain, who in this film makes even less sense than his cheap building code-cutting doppelganger from The Towering Inferno, because seriously, who argues against an evacuation when lava bombs are landing outside? There isn’t a credible minute in this film’s entire runtime.
This was Irwin Allen’s follow up feature to two box office bombs, The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure – basically closing the book on the disaster genre for years to come – and after When Time Ran Out died at the box office, Allen never made a theatrical film again, but he did go on to make some great classic television shows like Lost in Space. So that’s nice.
Note: When Time Ran Out is easily one of the worst disaster films out there – mainly for the crime of being monumentally boring – but it certainly had a heavy disaster pedigree with its cast.
• Paul Newman, James Franciscus and William Holden all starred in The Towering Inferno.
• Both Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine starred in The Poseidon Adventure.
• Burgess Meredith starred in The Hindenburg.
• Jacqueline Bisset was in Airport.