Canned Heat

Volcano has all the clichés except the one that matters.

Directed by Mick Jackson
20th Century Fox

Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, an occasion sure to be commemorated with solemn ceremonies at Florence and Normandie, network interviews with Reginald Denny, and earnest editorials about how little has changed since 1992. All of these will no doubt be very enlightening. But this weekend, Rupert Murdoch and 20th Century Fox bring us the grandest riot tribute of them all: Volcano.

Here is a movie wrapped in a bad metaphor. Beneath the glamorous veneer of Los Angeles, beneath the crust of wealth and glitter, boils a sea of rage–rich against poor, black against white. When this volcano erupts, its fire and brimstone will burn Gomorrah to the ground. But there’s hope. If we all come together as brothers and sisters–black and white, Asian and Latino–then we can douse the fire, save our city, and save our souls. Volcano is the Rodney King of disaster movies: “My car just exploded. Molten lava melted your face. And there’s a volcano blocking traffic on Wilshire. So, please, can’t we all just get along?”

That Message, such as it is, tries to mask the fact that Volcano is just another $100 million genre movie, and a pretty lousy one, to boot. Hollywood is now in fire season (Dante’s Peak, Asteroid, and Volcano). Last summer was wind (Twister). Water will be next (Titanic and–I’m not kidding–Tsunami, The Flood, and Tidal Wave). The disasters (and the eco-political allegories associated with them) may be newish, but the formula is not. We know what to expect and what not to expect. There will be no winsome scene-setting. There will be mayhem on a vast scale. To this extent, Volcano delivers. Opening credits–cuts between a street protest and the boiling underground lava–establish that the city is about to explode. We are introduced to our hero, Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the city’s Director of Emergency Management Mike Roark. (That’s Roark, as in The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark.) Our hero is, as convention requires, a maverick, the kind of guy who has: 1) never learned to play politics; 2) acts first, asks questions later; 3) can’t stand sitting behind a desk; 4) breaks the rules to save lives; 5) insert your favorite cliché. Roark is about to go on vacation (heroes of disaster movies are always about to go on vacation) when peculiar things start to happen: Earthquakes rattle office buildings, a bunch of sewer workers are scalded to death, a scientist plunges headlong into a bottomless chasm. Soon lava bombs ignite fires in South Central and the La Brea tar pits erupt and spew a river of molten lava onto Wilshire Boulevard. “The city,” one character warns, “is paying for its arrogance.” Roark mobilizes an appropriately multiethnic team of rescue workers; comforts his spunky 13-year-old daughter; flirts with Dr. Amy Barnes, the sassy young seismologist babe (Anne Heche); and goes to work.

W hat follows is an hour of high volume and low coherence. To summarize: A great many things explode (including a bus, a fire engine, a building). Even more things melt (including a car, a ladder, a mannequin). A cute dog is saved from incineration. A subway train isn’t. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art goes up in smoke (What’s on exhibit? Hieronymus Bosch, of course). A Mark Fuhrmanesque cop learns to love black people. The Los Angeles subway–wrecked once in Speed–is destroyed again. Roark dynamites a skyscraper (just like Roark in The Fountainhead). The good people of Los Angeles divert the lava into the sea. And a little boy gazes into the teeming crowd of Angelenos–black, white, Latino, etc.–all of them covered in gray volcanic ash. He says, in a voice filled with childish wonderment, “Everyone looks the same.” Out of the mouths of babes!

All this is delivered with cavalier inattention to niceties like character and dialogue. Jones, normally a charmer, seems slightly embarrassed to be pimping himself. His principal accomplishment is shouting loud enough to be heard above the din. Other members of the cast fill their stereotypical roles (obstreperous bureaucrat, goofy but savvy black sidekick, hard-nosed police chief) with minimal competence. The guy who played Frances McDormand’s husband in Fargo (John Carroll Lynch) gets melted. A couple of other guys get buried in rubble. Nor are the special effects anything to get excited about. The lava, allegedly the star attraction, looks more like a tasty vanilla custard than the earth’s infernal vomit.

Volcano’s real failure, though, is not flat characters or lame special effects. Twister has wispy characters. Dante’s Peak has awful special effects. Both are 10 times better than Volcano. Volcano’s crime is that, despite its adherence to form, it fundamentally misunderstands the dramatic requirements of disaster movies. The most important character in a disaster movie–the only important character in a disaster movie–is Mother Nature, that villain-bitch. She must be ill-tempered, capricious, and vengeful. Twister’s tornadoes begin as cute little storms, but gradually acquire a vicious disposition. The final tornado behaves like the craziest bastard you’d ever hope never to meet. The volcano of Dante’s Peak, too, is a sinister, seductive creature. She toys with the human characters for days, teasing them with fake eruptions and shuddering little earthquakes. Then, when she’s softened them up, she brutalizes them. But Volcano is a movie without a villain or a mystery. The volcano has no quirks of personality, because it has no personality. Defeating it is a breeze, because it’s dumb, mechanical, and predictable. The lava does what the scientists say it’s going to do, flowing dutifully downhill from the West Side to the ocean, stopping in its tracks when doused with water. The volcano, like Volcano, is a dud.

“It’s like a lava chute”: Dr. Amy Barnes (Heche), Mike Roark (Jones), and an eruption (55 seconds):
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