Mother Nature throws some pretty mean left hooks when it comes to disasters, from hurricanes to earthquakes she can be bloody terrifying, but there is something both regal and terrifying about an erupting volcano and in 1997 Hollywood gave us not one but two films with this spectacular geological event as its centrepiece. The first entry was the Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton film, Dante’s Peak, where a volcanologist tried to save a town from its own stupidity, and the other was simply titled Volcano. Strangely enough, that movie doesn’t even have an actual volcano in it, instead, what we get here is more of a very persistent lava flow than a volcano.
The plot of this particular disaster movie centers around the formation of a volcano at the La Brea Tar Pits and the heroic actions of Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones), the new director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, as he tries to deal with the crisis. Roark is the kind of guy who refuses to stay on vacation, leaving his daughter Kelly (Gabby Hoffman) when earthquakes start hitting the city so he can go be The Man. But our hero isn’t alone, he is aided by plucky seismologist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) who believes that a volcano may be forming beneath the city, so it’s up to her and Roark to save the city. As with most disaster movies the actual disaster is often a simple backdrop to the “human drama” and Mick Jackson’s Volcano is no exception as not only do we get people being all heroic and stuff in the face of nature’s fury, which is to be expected in this kind of story, but we also have a racist cop arresting a black man simply because he was demanding that the firemen come to his neighbour instead of wasting time saving art galleries and a couple of malls. But there’s more, we also have real estate developer Norman Calder (John Corbett) who wants his wife, Dr. Jaye Calder (Jaqueline Kim), to quit her job taking care of poor people and, instead, work on tennis elbows and nose jobs at a more upscale hospital.
We also get conflict between Dr. Barnes and Stan Olber (John Carroll Lynch), the chairman of the Los Angeles MTA who refuses to close down the subway lines because she can’t prove that the seismic events are a threat to his passengers – unlike the asshole rich husband he does pay for this bit of hubris with his life – but even Roark has a hard time believing that they’re dealing with a possible volcano and he’s more concerned about his angsty daughter, but to be fair, she seems to have the survival instincts of a lemming so his concerns are not without merit. The film also gives some comedy banter between Roark and his assistant, Emmitt Reese (Don Cheadle), who is stuck back at headquarters because Roark refuses to leave the field as he is “A man of action!” and can’t be bothered pushing pencils or talking to the Chief of Police. Sadly, his ability to solve any problem he faces is undercut by his overtly macho nature.
The film climaxes when Amy realizes that the lava is now using the new subway line to travel beneath the city and she determines that the flow of fast-moving laving will burst out in a violent eruption in about thirty minutes, right below Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the Beverly Center, and right where Roark had sent his daughter to be safe. Mother Nature does love irony. Roark asks for the city’s demolition squad to bring down a high-rise building to create a blockage but one of the police officers rightfully points out “That’s a precision drop, that takes days to plan” and Roark tells him “Set a speed record” and because if you say something with enough earnestness it doesn’t matter if what you asked for is ridiculously impossible it will work. That’s just science. Yet that’s not enough drama for this movie, no siree, we also have to deal with Kelly trying to retrieve a little boy she was looking after, who had wandered off own because the lemming trait spreads like a virus, and this leads to the two of them ending up right in the direct path of the collapsing building. Roark saves them by running four hundred yards in about ten seconds flat, just so he can knock these two Darwin Award applicants backwards a couple of feet and out of harm’s way.
• There are many moments that strain a viewer’s credulity during this movie’s 104-minute running time but nothing tops the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management asking, “What’s magma?” I think every boy over the age of six probably knows what magma is, so you’d think that someone whose job it is to handle disasters would know something so basic.
• In action movies cars tend to explode with the merest provocation, but in this film, cars can sink into rivers of lava without their gas tanks igniting.
• Roark has the police and firemen help him turn over a bus so that it can function as a barricade against the approaching lava, but as we’ve already seen, vehicles melt in seconds when surrounded by lava so I’m not sure this was the best use of their time.
• This movie has a hard time understanding the effects of radiant heat from fresh lava, which can be between 1,300° and 2,200° Fahrenheit because we see a fire hose burst into flames one second yet our lead actors, who are right on top of it, are just fine while the fireman they are with has his pants catch fire.
• Stan Olber jumps into ankle-deep lava so that he can throw an unconscious subway driver to safety, which is ridiculous the pain of landing in lava would send your body into instant shock so doing anything other than screaming in agony is highly unlikely.
• We see helicopters dropping water on the lava but the water would have most likely vaporized by the time it actually hit the lava, not to mention the fact that ash would have clogged their engines and the updrafts from the 1000 ºC lava would flipped them out of control.
• Keith David tries to help the little boy and asks, “Let’s go find your mom. What’s she look like?” The kid responds, “She looks like…” Then seeing everyone covered in gray ash the little tike states, “Look at their faces, they all look the same.”
That the film is set in Los Angeles may excuse the screenwriter’s strange need to address the racial issues that still plague the City of Angels and while having one character reference Rodney King is one thing it’s pretty ridiculous to have a white police officer go out of his way to handcuff a black man while lava is erupting all around them, it makes the cop not look so much like a racist asshat but a complete moron as well and it took what was already a pretty heavy-handed scene and made it ludicrous. That kind of thing could be overlooked if the rest of the script was any better but Tommy Lee Jones was clearly told to play his part as if his character from The Fugitive had made a career change and moved to L.A. I half expected him to belt out to the people around him that “What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area, just find me that volcano.” The character of Mike Roark couldn’t have been a bigger cliché if he’d also announced he was three days away from retirement.
As to the disaster elements in this film, there are some great uses of practical effects to be found in director Mick Jackson’s Volcano but the CGI lava is never all that convincing nor was not allowed to properly interact with the real environs – the firemen were forced to aim their fire hoses off-screen instead of at the leading edge of the lava because that interaction were something the effects team clearly couldn’t do so they didn’t even bother to try – and while visuals of lava bombs flying through the air and magma bubbling to the surface had its moments the key problem with this outing is that despite all the fiery pandemonium the script is mostly a collection cheesy clichés and none of the characters rise above their two-dimensional depictions. There are certainly worse disaster movies out there but as this was a big star-studded Hollywood blockbuster they could have spent a little more time and money on the effects and even more time on the script. Sadly, they clearly didn’t and the result was a disaster movie that is forgettable when not being unintentionally funny.
Movie Rank - 6/10
Tommy Lee Jones plays your standard take-charge hero and Anne Heche is fine as the expository dialogue machine, and while they both do fine with in their respective parts the disaster moments are overshadowed by some of the clunkiest dialogue ever delivered and the special effects on hand only varied from good to mediocre.