Screenplay : Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Tommy Lee Jones (Mike Roark), Anne Heche (Dr. Amy Barnes), Gaby Hoffmann (Kelly Roark), Don Cheadle (Emmit Reese), Jacqui Kim (Dr. Jaye Calder), Keith David (Lt. Ed Fox)
"Volcano," the latest big-budget disaster epic, asks us to embrace a rather tantalizingly plausible idea: that all the earthquakes in Los Angeles have opened a fissure in the ground that allows tons of hot, spewing lava to erupt in the middle of downtown and flood Wilshire Boulevard.
As Mike Roark, the head of L.A.'s Office of Emergency Management, Tommy Lee Jones finds his hands full containing the unexpected eruption. The title of the movie is a bit misleading because there is no volcano in the normal sense -- no giant mountain overlooking L.A. Instead, the mounds of lava come exploding out of the ground underneath the La Brea tar pits.
"Volcano" takes little or no time setting up its premise. The credit roll over typical, sunny L.A. as people go about their daily routines (gee, that's original). Next thing you know, a couple of construction workers in the sewer are scalded to death. One of the managers explains that they must have hit a pocket of steam, but Jones isn't so sure. Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), a shapely blond geologist, then informs him that a major geological event is happening beneath them. How does she know? A small pond rose eight degrees in temperature in twelve hours. "Yeah, but it's a sunny day," Jones tries to rationalize. No good. It's not that simple.
When the underground volcano finally decides to blow its lid, it makes itself know right away. Some ash, a few firebombs, then the unyielding lava flow. Even worse, it decides to do it at six o'clock in the morning when no one is awake much less prepared. Of course, director Mick Jackson ("The Bodyguard") probably chose to do it in the early morning hours mainly because the glowing, molten rock photographs much better against a dark sky than it does a blue sky.
Taken as a whole, "Volcano" is not a bad movie. It's not especially good either, but it delivers what it promises. With the glut of disaster movies that have come out recently, I've simply stopped expecting intriguing characterization and moving plots. People exist in these films for two purposes: to die, or to act heroic. It's one or the other.
Tommy Lee Jones was a good choice for the lead role. He's an older, experience actor who brings a bit of respectability to the film (ala Marlon Brando in "Superman"). Jones is a charismatic actor who looks good when he's in authority and barking orders, proven by his Oscar-winning performance in "The Fugitive." Here he ends up leading not only his own Emergency Management office, but also the L.A.P.D., the fire department, and most of the citizens.
The script, obviously thrown together in short time by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray, gives us the bare minimums needed for a story and then lets the lava flow. Ironically, it's when they try to make the story meaningful that "Volcano" fails. There's a pathetic running subplot involving a white, skinhead-like police officer, and a rowdy black gangster type. You can't figure out which one of the characters is more unlikable, even though their interaction is supposed to pass for a microcosm of L.A.'s race problem, and their eventual working together as proof that extreme situations bring together men of all colors, races, and creeds. Give me a break.
The screenplay also gives Tommy Lee Jones a fourteen-year-old daughter (Gaby Hoffman) visiting him for the week. This adds a second microcosm of the broken American family, involving Jones the estranged father, his bickering ex-wife (heard only over the telephone), and their rebellious daughter caught in the middle. This works in the same capacity as the white cop/black citizen scenario, but to slightly better effect.
Then there's the obligatory "save the dog" sequence, but this one is so grossly obvious that I have to believe the screenwriters intended it as tongue-in-cheek. Otherwise, I would have to give up all hope in Hollywood's dignity, and I'm not ready to do that quite yet.
But enough of that. What about the special effects?
Quite spectacular, I must say. The only complaint is that the effects are mostly limited to flowing lava and a few explosions. Like the tornadoes from "Twister," you get a bit immune to the molten rock after the first hour, so the film's intensity ends up wearing itself down by the grand finale. Still, it's an exciting bit of moviemaking that's good as a warm-up for the real onslaught awaiting us in the Summer Movie Explosion of 1997 just a few weeks down the road.
©1997 James Kendrick