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"Joe Versus the Volcano": A Quirky Fable About Presentism

Sam loves movies and enjoys science fiction, zombie movies, and pessimistic survival films.

"Joe Versus the Volcano" proves to be an interesting film with flaws here and there.

"Joe Versus the Volcano" proves to be an interesting film with flaws here and there.

Joe Versus the Volcano: Miserable Joe

"Once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe, who had a very lousy job."

From the very beginning, Joe Versus the Volcano's intention to be a fable is evident. But don't expect some Aesop wisdom. This is a somewhat gray and bewildering fable.

The protagonist of the story is Joe Banks (Tom Hanks), a pale quasi-zombie who has a miserable job. The opening sequence shows him walking down a “crooked road” towards his grayish work, whose production design seems to be taken from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or a strategically cheap and unimpressive version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This is thanks to the wonderful artisanal and anti-realistic work of Bo Welch, who is known for films like Beetlejuice, among others.

A wide shot of this sequence ends up showing us a tiny Joe entering not only the factory but practically the industrial machinery that moves a chaotic city.

And that's when the title of the film appears, in a not at all subtle way, also making the motif very clear:

Joe Versus The Volcano

Movie Details

Title: Joe Versus the Volcano

Release Year: 1990

Director(s): John Patrick Shanley

Actors: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, a.o.


Mixed Thoughts

This movie was a mixed bag at the time of its premiere, a victim of its marketing and the expectation of its key players. John Patrick Shanley, in his directorial debut, had just won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan came from the romantic comedy world (they would end up starring in two other real and blockbuster exponents of the genre). The trailer sold the movie as a romantic comedy/jungle adventure flick. The audience just wasn't ready for the real thing.

The Main Theme: Job Alienation

The "loss of soul" is the main motive of the film. Not in a The-Devil-Went-Down-to-Georgia kind of way, but in a more concrete one: job alienation. The characters mention several times the relationship of having lost their soul by a numerical number. Joe quits after a rant of having lost his life for $300 a month. Another character talks about being "soul-sick" after her villainized father put a price on her services. The very beginning of the film is set to Eric Burdon's “Sixteen Tons," whose lyrics include the very evident phrase I owe my soul to the company store,:


What Is Alienation?

Alienation is the process by which you lose control of yourself. Meaning, the person becomes someone foreign to himself. In this process, people might even behave contrary to what was expected of them by their nature. Karl Marx relates it directly to the exploitation relationship characteristic of the capitalist system. The worker is not considered a person, but a labor force to multiply capital (Mr. Waturi, Joe's boss, repeating infinitely "I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?" is not accidental).

So yes, Joe has been completely alienated by his work. He used to be a brave firefighter (I mean, his previous profession carried the symbology of the relationship between flame and life) that saved lives and is now an "advertising librarian for a medical supply company" that proudly claims is the "home of the rectal probe" (of which they are convinced to have 712,765 “satisfied” customers) and "Petroleum Jelly."

Joe's Miserable Life

His life is miserable. The tungsten light makes him sick, he says, and when he tries to put a tiny warm light on his desk, he is blocked by his boss. He feels physically ill and is also convinced that his symptoms could be false. He is sick and gaslighted by the system at the same time.

That's why it's perceived as a relief when a doctor diagnoses him with an incurable disease (a brain cloud?) that would leave him with just some months of life left. The doctor's advice is for Joe to live the rest of his life well, and that's precisely what he plans to do.

Joe receives the visit of enigmatic billionaire Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), who makes him a "tempting" offer: He needs to continue mining a rare mineral that is only available on the tiny island of Waponi Woo, which is facing total extinction thanks to a volcano that will explode and destroy everything if it does not receive a voluntary human sacrifice. Graynamore offers Joe the chance to be a millionaire for a few weeks, on the condition that he eventually decides to go to the island and launch himself into the volcano, saving the people of the island and his business. He appeals to his old sense of heroism and the possibility of having a lifestyle that he would never otherwise have.

Joe stoically accepts. It's liberating to make a decision that has direct consequences on your life. That death is one of them is a minor detail. Money is a great bonus, but it's clear that what motivates Joe is having a sense of purpose.


So What Is It Really About?

Joe Versus the Volcano is about this preparation on death and its link with how we spend our lives.

But this is not an anti-capitalist treaty or something from a self-help book. At least not one of the most uplifting. At times, the story only seems to tell us that it is okay to be afraid of life and have no certainties, as long as we are there, present and aware. It seems like a treatise on non-paralyzing presentism, one that does not judge.

Meg Ryan plays three roles that could well have been just one. Or seven. Not because the characters are forgettable, but because they are only there to represent a vital component in our lives: a life partner. Ryan is originally DeDe, a shy coworker who plays the role of platonic work love, then she's Angelica (one of Graynamore's daughters), who acts more like a proto manic pixie dream girl who symbolizes fleeting loves with no future. Then she embodies Patricia (Graynamore's other daughter), who does end up being a stable couple/wife.

The interesting thing about the presence of these three characters is that they don't seem to really influence the story. Relationships exist and that's it. It could be a one-night stand or real love. They aren' treated as a life-changing force of nature. Joe doesn't stop jumping to the volcano for love: he does it accompanied by his wife. In other movies, romantic love is often seen as a "higher-order moral good", here it's a mere event like all other manifestation.


Final Thoughts

At times, especially in its end, Joe Versus the Volcano seems lost in its defiantly irreverent attitude. There are times when Joe's reactions don't just look quirky and different but rather flat out off. Does Joe want to go on living? In a sense, he has a less identified perspective on life, a zen-like state of mind. If you have no idea what this means. you could end up with questions like: "Is Joe happy that he got love?" "Is he even "in love"?" His "welp" and shrug attitude doesn't make much sense, especially after seeing him in a scene before the last act succumb to the vastness of the universe (and the moon) and be visibly grateful for his life. The problem lies in the fact that the movie has difficulty in presenting the difference between a more personal and larger perspective on life. "Small mind" vs "Big mind" it could be called, although even this is a false dichotomy, but it can help to explain the conflicting interpretations. The movie is very uneven in the portrayal of these states and how they are related to the events that enfolded.

But perhaps this was the perfect ending. After all, there was an additional scene that was removed after not having much success with audience testing, in which Joe and Patricia confront Mr. Graynamore (who’s revealed to having staged everything to get Joe to jump into the volcano). Perhaps that scene offers a little more closure but had to suffer a bit of everyday life. One that Joe Versus the Volcano repudiates and assures us is what will make us die in life. It doesn't matter that this daily life is a "happy loving ending". Predictability and routine seem deadly to the soul.

It's not as if Joe Versus the Volcano doesn't make this clear with some of its dialogues. Joe Banks says, in perhaps the most existentialist moment (but ignored by his quirky delivery): Who am I? Thats the real question, isnt it? Who am I? (…) You want to understand the universe? Embrace the universe. The door to the universe is you.”

Patricia, in the absurd but memorable climax, reinforces the same idea: Joe, nobody knows anything. Well take this leap and well see. Well jump and well see. Thats life!”

Perhaps the uncertainty of this cinematic daydreaming is precisely what Joe Versus the Volcano seeks to claim. Perhaps our potential and receptivity as humans are more open to the unknown. Perhaps it's the only way we won't lose our soul.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Sam Shepards