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What's the big deal?
Volcano is an action disaster film released in 1997 and was written by Billy Ray and Jerome Armstrong. The film depicts a sudden eruption by a previously undetected volcano beneath the city of Los Angeles and the efforts of a team of experts to try and prevent the city's complete destruction. The film stars Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffmann and Keith David and was directed by Mick Jackson. Despite going on to earn in excess of $122 million worldwide, it received a mixed response from critics who compared it unfavourably to another volcano-based film released just two months earlier, Dante's Peak, which also made more at the box office. The film came in for criticism for its poor visual effects and lack of decent story-telling.
What's it about?
After Los Angeles is rocked by a minor earthquake, the director of the city's Office of Emergency Management - Michael Roark - arrives at the office despite being on holiday with his daughter Kelly. He is told by his co-worker Emmitt Reese that the quake caused no major damage but seven utility workers have been found dead in a storm drain near MacArthur Park. As Roark investigates, he finds one of them has survived but is horribly burnt. As a precaution, Roark orders the subway system to be shut down but the head of the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority - Stan Olber - refuses as he feels that there is no danger to trains.
Meanwhile, geologist Amy Barnes has a theory that a volcano may be forming beneath the city with magma flowing through underground tunnels. Trouble is, she doesn't have enough evidence to convince Roark but neither of them have long to wait. Early the next morning, Barnes and her assistant are poking around the storm drain when the city is struck by another, more powerful quake. Not only does this release deadly amounts of hot gas but also derails a subway train and knocks power out to the whole city. As volcanic ash and rock begin to spew forth, it turns out that Roark is best placed to try and save the city.
Tommy Lee Jones
Dr Amy Barnes
Dr Jaye Calder
Lieutenant Ed Fox
John Carroll Lynch
Jerome Armstrong & Billy Ray*
Release Date (UK)
3rd October, 1997
Action, Drama, Disaster, Sci-Fi
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Reckless Disregard For Human Life And Public Property
What's to like?
Frankly, not much. Jones and Heche do what they can with under-written characters but the film is under no illusion as to why most audience members want to see. They want to see their favourite Californian destination utterly wrecked by fire, lava and numerous other volcano-related catastrophe while placing bets on which cast members are going to survive. Perhaps wisely, the film delivers plenty of carnage on screen with many recognisable locations getting burnt to a crisp or melting in a pool of molten magma. After all, isn't that why we go to see disaster movies?
At times, the film sticks so close to the disaster movie step-by-step playbook that it almost feels like a parody. There's the dog that gets into trouble and just has to be saved somehow, Roark's daughter inevitably gets seperated from him at some point and you know that lava will flow just fast enough to catch up to people fleeing from it. Unlike Dante's Peak, Volcano is more than happy to depict a downtown volcanic eruption in purely artistic terms and focuses on being little more than a big-budget B-movie. It wants to deliver cheap thrills and visual spectacle rather than fully fleshed-out characters we care about or a gripping narrative so in that respect, the film is a winner.
- The volcanic ash that appears on screen was mostly made up of ground up newspaper while the lava was primarily made of a chemical compound called methylcellulose, a thickening agent normally found in milkshakes from fast-food restaurants.
- According to IMDb, this is the only film credit of Jerome Armstrong's career.
- The scene where Stan Olber is climbing onto a subway train, he calls out "Give me a push!" This line was never in the script - Lynch ad-libbed it as he had trouble climbing onto the subway carriage and the line was left in.
- One of the musicians who performed on the film's soundtrack was renowned film composer James Newton Howard. Ironically, he also co-composed the soundtrack for Dante's Peak the same year!
What's not to like?
For a film that stick rigidly to the disaster template (the one I call the Irving Allen Formula), Volcano does make a number of critical errors. The film makes the mistake of pitching us head-first into the initial rumblings of the disaster instead of giving us time to see and know these characters whose lives are about to be put into serious jeopardy. So when the time comes when so-and-so is cornered by lava and about to be turned into barbecued human toast, we don't care as much as we should. The dog, naturally, becomes the focus for our sympathies and that doesn't leave much left for the human characters who, for the most part, are underwritten and forgettable. The film just wanted to set LA on fire so that's really all it does.
Assuming that visual spectacle was the raison d'être of the film, you'd think they'd put more effort into the film's mirade of special effects but the film is a disappointment on that front too. The lava looks too fake and the various gas eruptions and explosions look too much like pre-planned pyrotechnics of the sort you'd see on a ride at a Universal Studios theme park. There's little sense of heat to the film as people operate within touching distance of the lava with only the faintest hint of sweat on their brow. At no point are you convinced of the movie's viability and it just ends up being another film where you end up betting who will survive. My money's on the MTA boss...
Should I watch it?
If you haven't already seen Dante's Peak then Volcano is a big, dumb movie about the fiery end of LA and little else. It was never gonna change the world but you can have a modicum of amusement watching it. If you have already seen Dante's Peak (or any other volcano-based picture, for that matter) then this won't offer you anything you haven't already seen before. A flaming wasted opportunity.
Great For: LA residents fed up of living in the city, anyone who has no idea how a volcanic eruption happens, volcanologists wanting a laugh, dog lovers
Not So Great For: CG artists, anyone who has already seen one volcano-based movie, LA real estate agents
What else should I watch?
Despite banging on about how much better Dante's Peak is to Volcano, it's worth pointing out that the earlier magma-based movie isn't that much better. The movie is just as crammed with hokey dialogue and uninvolving performances from Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton but feels more exciting somehow and features better effects. Volcanoes have been featured in movies since the silent era and continue to pop up with some regularity. Pompeii saw a return to the ill-fated Roman city that has been the subject of at least eight movies since the dawn of motion pictures while the most recent Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom sees Chris Pratt try to rescue some dinosaurs before a powerful eruption threatens to wipe them out all over again.
Of course volcanoes don't own the monopoly on disaster movies with Death taking many guises such as upturned cruise liners, ruddy big monsters, sharks falling from the sky and even Mayan calendars. As a genre, they don't do anything for me because I think, deep down, I know that I'm just watching actors running away from whatever is on the green screen behind them. But if mass destruction and threats to humanity are your thing then probably the only film you'll ever need is the laughably bad 2012. Pitching John Cusack against the literal end of the world in just about fine but the sheer scale of the chaos on screen is breath-taking in every respect. If you're looking for something a bit classier then at least San Andreas has the right hero in the suitably cartoony shape of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox