Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Volcano – A Volcano in Los Angeles, or Mark Furhman Meets Lava

Written by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray
Directed by Mick Jackson

As if there are not already enough problems in California with fires, earthquakes, mudslides, and typhoons (not to mention recall elections), Los Angeles is about to get its very own volcano.

The first hint that something is amiss is a small earthquake. Meanwhile, in the MacArthur Park area of the city, a public works crew is underground and suddenly severely burned.

In many ways, this movie offers up the same clichés which surfaced in Dantes’s Peak (which was released the same year as Volcano, 1997), such as the scientist who knows something is wrong and wants to warn everyone, yet no one listens to her. In this case, the character is a seismologist named Amy Barnes (portrayed by Anne Heche).

However, unlike Dantes’s Peak, Volcano manages to insult the viewer’s intelligence along the way.

Is it believable that a volcano would erupt under Los Angeles following a moderate earthquake? Not really. Sure, there have been cases of this in real life, such as the Mexican former who one day found a volcano where his fields used to be, but in a city such as this where every seismic shift is monitored with the latest in technology, it would be hard to miss something like this building up.

If I could manage to suspend my disbelief for that part of the story, there are still some huge problems with the movie itself. Tommy Lee Jones portrays the city official who recently moved to California from St. Louis. His teenage daughter (portrayed by Gaby Hoffmann) is in town for her annual time with her father when all the events take place. This man presumably then has never faced a “big event” in the city before. He’s never been in a major earthquake, and he’s certainly never faced an erupting volcano under the city. Yes, he has everyone around him listening to all that he has to say.

A big problem comes from the decision to try to enhance Los Angeles’ national image in the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots. In giving the movie a very overt message about racism, it takes quite a bit from the excitement of the story itself. The racist cop comes up against a man who just wants to see homes – that the viewer is left to assume – that is in a low-income area saved. When the firefighters and officials are resistant to the idea, he immediately begins screaming “racism”, and he is arrested by the cop. There are also scenes where discussion of the subway system – which will be rendered moot by the end of the film – turns into an “us vs. them” debate as the rich in Beverly Hills are shown protesting a station near them. Meanwhile, lower-income workers are nearby asking them how they expect the people who work for them to get to their places of employment. The ending also tackles the racism issue in a mostly fairy-tale fashion. The whole issue should have been jettisoned from the script, and it would have been much better.

There are other sub-stories going on as well as Roark, the divorced father tries to relate to his visiting daughter in the short time they have together. John Corbett is Stan Olber, a real-estate developer who’s about to make a killing with a new building. The building is right next to the hospital where his wife, Dr. Jaye Calder (portrayed by Jacqueline Kim) works. He also exhibits the classism touched on before in that he doesn’t want his wife “working with these people” – meaning anyone who makes less money and doesn’t travel in the same social circles as him.

To that end, I guess I was supposed to feel a touch of justice when it’s his building that needs to be demolished in order to stop the flow of lava through the city. Actually, the whole thing just didn’t make sense to me as I felt there was no way a controlled and precise detonation could be pulled off in the short time available to them. It just ended up coming off ridiculous.

As for the special effects, well, with a movie like this you’d expect outstanding special effects. For the most part, that’s what you get. There are some terrific shots of lava bombs crashing into emergency vehicles and starting fires. For those of us who grew up watching Emergency!, there are some terrific shots among the canyons of Los Angeles of glass buildings on fire and the firefighters trying to battle them.

The real star of the movie – if you want to call it that – is the lava. Herein lies another problem. The lava moves at very different speeds in different areas. At one point when Roark decides to make a stand, the lava moves slow enough that he is able to call for concrete highway dividers to be brought in, have them brought in from wherever they are through all the snarled traffic that must be out of our sight, and stack them up as a barrier before the lava moves two blocks. Shortly thereafter, the lava is shown moving at high speeds through the subway tunnels.

Another problem is that while I understand that the actors shot their scenes and then the lava effect was put in afterward, their reactions to the lava just don’t seem right. A train has gone off of the tracks down in the subway. As workers make their way toward the train, there is mention of the heat, but because of the confines of the tunnel, it should have been way more intense than the way they react. Here again, the lava is moving slow enough to allow the workers to nearly evacuate the train, although it had been shown moving quite a bit faster.

I can’t say that the acting is all that great. Tommy Lee Jones seems to just be Tommy Lee Jones here. There’s no real reach for him at all. There is also no chemistry between him and Anne Heche, so if the writer was trying to create a romantic pairing I think that was ditched during the filming as the script never quite goes there. I don’t feel this is a result of Heche’s on-again, off-again lesbianism, but rather her inability to really act. I’ve yet to see her in a role where I really feel she’s extending herself.

Don Cheadle is thrown in here for comic relief as he’s stuck in the office trying to run interference for Roark with the mayor, a faceless and virtually voiceless entity that comes off like the teacher in the Peanuts specials. He does about what’s expected of him. John Corbett is stiff in the role as the real-estate developer, and Jacqueline Kim seems to have no chemistry with him, either, making me wonder what she ever saw in him in the first place.

Of all the problems there are with this film, this is the biggest one. The actors just don’t make me care at all about the characters. I don’t know if that’s Director Mick Jackson’s fault for not getting decent performances out of the cast, or just the problem of a rather lame story that hinges on special effects.

There are no real extras on the DVD, just the theatrical trailer and biographies of the cast and crew. All in all, this is a disaster story that I’d skip. If it happens to show up on cable and I’m really doing something else, I might leave it on just for the special effects shots. Otherwise, it’s really lacking, even when just compared to other disaster flicks.

6 replies »

  1. I went to see a fair number of “disaster” films in the 1970s and that soured me on them for all time… Earthquake, Meteor, The Towering Inferno. I decided that they were geared toward young men and were supposed to be “good” date movies. I guess the intention was that the girls would be so terrified they grab their date’s hand and arm and hide their eyes against his shoulder… Me? I’m an anomaly as they made me laugh at the preposterous story lines and scoff at the lack of science behind the disasters….

    • I enjoy them from time to time. Not sure why. I’ve grown a bit repulsed by the fact that we are supposed to cheer for the central characters that get through it and not care one whit about the thousands (millions?) who die that we don’t know. I think it’s gone a long way to desensitizing us to what happens out there in real life that doesn’t directly effect us.

      But when I bring this up I’m told “it’s just a movie”.