During that mad rush in the 90’s where filmmakers rushed to take advantage of state of the art digital technology to realise every cinematic wet dream they’d ever thought up, it was inevitable that some studios were going to have the same idea – and so in 1997 we got two volcano movies in one year.
It had happened before and it will probably happen again (Pixar and DreamWorks putting out competing monster and fish movies out at the same time happened in wake competing asteroid movies Deep Impact and Armageddon), but the fact that this particular instance was so precise – volcano movies? – if felt like the beginning of an old Hollywood joke.
Anyway, regardless of whether we even wanted one volcano movie, Dante’s Peak managed to get into cinemas first with Mick Jackson’s more high concept Volcano rolling in second – but which one managed to bring the heat the most?
Permanently grouchy director of Los Angeles’ Office Of Emergency Management, Michael Roark has a lot on his plate at the best of times, but trying to juggle a vacation with his daughter while fighting his workaholic urge to head back into the office proves to be too much. With the occasion earthquake not withstanding (it is LA, after all; a city whose tectonic plates are stacked up like untidy crockery), Roarke’s intrest is peaked by seven utility workers burning to death under suspicious circumstances in a storm drain.
While Roarke gets into barking matches with various officials about getting the subway lines shut down as a precaution, plucky geologist Amy Barnes is doing some investigating of her own and comes to the stonking conclusion that a volcano is forming beneath the city and is about to erupt very, very soon.
When LA does blow its stack, various members of the city have to decide if they’re going to help or flee for their lives as a carpet of searing hot lava makes it’s steady progress towards people’s homes. Roarke and Amy dash around, getting in various fire-related scrapes while trying to concoct a daring plan to halt the lava flow, while the guy who ordered the subway lines left open leads a rescue team underground to save a stranded train and possibly redeem himself. A pair of cops clash with a black guy, a doctor defies her uptight rich husband who doesn’t want her in the danger zone and Roarke’s daughter constantly wandering into danger pad out the rest of the story as outlandish attempts to save the parts of LA that haven’t been roasted harder than a Piers Morgan tweet get underway. As the poster tagline aptly screams: The Coast Is Toast.
Quite possibly the only thing that makes Volcano any sort of talking point decades later is the aforementioned trivia that it was released the same year as Dante’s Peak, so I guess we’d better get the obvious question out the way first: which one was better. To be honest, I gotta go with Dante’s Peak, but it isn’t better by much.
You see at the time, it seemed like Volcano was the smarter choice as its “What If” scenario of a formation of a giant fire mountain right next to MacArthur Park give the movie a chance to do a few more things than just let the pyrotechnics have a field day – but viewing it now, you kind of yearn for the disaster movie simplicity of Piece Brosnan’s take and every attempt of Volcano to tackle such themes as racism, class and Don Cheadle’s stunning Kangol hat crashes and burns like one of the many lava bombs that rain down on hapless, fire-proofed stuntmen.
Most noticable is the ongoing drama about an angry black man getting arrested by white cops for literally no reason and who crossly debate this while practically everything around them burns to the ground. It has all the nuance of a best man speech by a smashed Oliver Reed and is so heavy handed it might as well flash up title card that read “RACISM IS BAD!” when all you just wanna see is more explodey stuff. Similarly, the plot point where a douchey John Corbett doesn’t want his doctor wife treating poor people also goes nowhere, but at least it doesn’t smash you over the head with it and the final scene where people of all races look the same due to being dusted with volcanic ash is so painfully unsubtle you feel it was written by a six year old.
Well meaning but iffy social commentary aside, when Volcano is allowed to just focus on, y’know – the actual volcano, it’s actually not that bad. Sure it has it’s fair share of iffy effects and endless reaction shots that stir up unintentional giggles, but that’s just part of the fun and while having the impatient eyebags of Tommy Lee Jones be the lead may feel like an unconventional choice, even in the wake of The Fugitive and Men In Black, when he drawls an order as someone you believe people would pay attention. Anne Heche does a similarly competent job but it’s tough not to get annoyed for her when her role is to spend the entire movie being ignored by dudes until Tommy Lee Jones sticks up for her while Don Cheadle’s Kangol enthusiast spends an alarmingly large amount of time cluttering up emergency phone lines with glib comments while never leaving the office.
However, Volcano’s main problem – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a 90’s disaster movie – is that the titular lava spitter behaves far too much like an actual volcano to be relentlessly exciting. Where Dante’s Peak had an impossibly energetic geological event that was a one-volcano devastation machine, Volcano’s lava moves slow and anyone threatened by it is usually caught out because they weren’t paying attention as the glowing red goop eventually… seeps… around… them.
However, obvious social commentary and sluggish threat aside, Volcano has an admittedly impressive scale to back it up (the helicopters swooping over a lava soaked street as they dump water on it is worth the price of admission alone) and it has one of the most awesome – if illogical – deaths in all of disaster movie history as John Carrol Lynch takes his place alongside Robert Wagner and Shelly Winters in the “Holy Fuck” hall of fame as his character jumps into molten rock to save a man and essentially sinks/melts into the lava like a soggy witch in the Wizard Of Oz.
Massively flawed and oddly patronizing, Volcano is still a fun time to be had for a more undemanding audience, but for my money, it’s still second place in the volcano movie championships of 1997.