Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray
With Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gaby Hoffman, and Don Cheadle.
By Bill Stamets
The point of a disaster movie is to have exactly the same script as every other disaster movie. –Dave Barry
Faithful to a fault, Volcano breaks no ground in the natural-disaster genre. From doggies escaping lava baths at the last minute to miracle closure scenes of reforged family units staggering from beneath tons of rubble, Volcano sticks to the recipe but caters to LA tastes by providing a huge dose of civic uplift.
Though the film occasionally plays to the animus against Los Angeles with its “The Coast Is Toast” advertising line, another tag, “Los Angeles Erupts 1997,” must strike a deeper chord with LA locals–and news viewers everywhere–who watched the city erupt in 1992 in the riotous aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Like a civil-defense training film, Volcano offers a social blueprint for a city surviving a geological riot instead of racial fissure.
The movie begins with a title explaining how the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management can take control of the city, commanding “all its resources,” in the event of a natural disaster. Barbecued rats in a subway tunnel are an early portent of the lava leak that catapults OEM honcho Mike Roark (perhaps an allusion to The Fountainhead’s hero, Howard Roark, and played by Tommy Lee Jones as a rugged but not quite towering visionary) to the town’s magma czar. Not only does he have custody of his 13-year-old daughter on a long overdue day off, now he must oversee the city’s salvation. It’s one hellacious take-your-daughter-to-work day.
Roark’s ex-wife and the chief of police are both offscreen meddlers who phone in their roles. The true heroes on Roark’s watch are civil servants in the water and power department, fire department, police department, and mass transit. The pocket-protector set rallies with feats of engineering and interagency networking. Supervisors and coworkers lay down their lives. Bureaucrats save the day. Red tape, lava, whatever–this city is on the offensive.
If LA blew it with the 1992 riots, here’s a cinematic pep rally that shows how to quell a real eruption. Volcano’s pinnacle of civic uplift is a scene in which a crew-cut white cop handcuffs a burly black man for trying too vigorously to get emergency crews to stop by his neighborhood. In the Pompeian chaos it’s absurd to make a disorderly-conduct arrest, and the irate suspect promptly nicknames the by-the-book cop “Mark Fuhrman” and plays to the TV helicopters circling overhead: “I’m about to become the volcano version of Rodney King!” The cop’s kinder, gentler partner releases the Herculean black man, who then joins the groaning cops to lift a massive cement barricade for a lava dam. This shoulder-to-shoulder coalition is consummated by an interracial military salute, as if to answer Rodney King’s “Can we all get along?” The Human Relations Commission of Los Angeles County couldn’t have scripted it better. In a final heart-tugging montage, a jubilant multicultural throng uniformly dusted with ash embrace one another amid apocalyptic rubble.
In another nod to local color, the film gives airtime to 45 members of the Los Angeles media, who as a group outnumber the film’s 43 stunt players and 43 special-effects technicians. Playing themselves they swarm over scenes of disaster, gush breathless updates, and block our view of the special effects in the background. But instead of signifying press hysteria, all their narration essentially makes the on-screen action redundant. Of course this gimmick assures saturation coverage of the film in LA (“So, how did it feel to play a newscaster?”), while the narration itself provides a ready-made book-on-tape version of the film.
Volcano is quintessential LA in its equal-time rendering of the disaster as both geology and a breaking news story. As French critic Jean Baudrillard wrote in 1986, “It’s not the least of America’s charms that even outside the movie theaters the whole country is cinematic. The desert you pass through is like the set of a Western.” Baudrillard, who was prone to postmodern rhapsodies on Apocalypse Now and The China Syndrome as documentaries, also singled out LA as the epicenter of America’s image-making empire. In a lyrical flight that anticipates the 1992 riots as well as Volcano–whose special effects include the incineration of a museum featuring a Hieronymous Bosch exhibit–Baudrillard observed: “There is nothing to match flying over Los Angeles by night. A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting from the cracks in the clouds. Only Hieronymous Bosch’s hell can match this inferno effect.”
A sort of Hollywood home movie, Volcano also toys with the cliche that everybody in LA has a screenplay to peddle. Before a subway motorman starts his shift, he thumbs through Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell. Later, in a show-must-go-on maneuver, his boss rescues the aspiring screenwriter from a lava-ravaged train. (One can only imagine the trial by fire this corny screenplay, by Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray, endured.)
Unfortunately, Volcano is also faithful to Hollywood’s legendary lack of originality. (An appendix in Hauge’s primer even offers a sample script treatment based on a California Division of Industrial Safety case, an irrigation tunnel that in 1971 “explode[d] into an inferno of fire and flying rock”; the appendix sketches “a madhouse of miners, firemen, reporters, and spectators.”) Anne Heche, who plays the spunky geologist in Volcano, spoke for all of LA–from Rodney King to the 20th Century-Fox production president whose plug appears on Hauge’s book jacket–when she summarized the movie’s message in a television interview: “We’re all the same is what it pretty much comes down to.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo.