Volcano (1997)

D: Mick Jackson
S: Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gabby Hoffman

Enjoyable disaster movie following quickly on the heels of several others of the mid nineties (and almost immediately on Dante's Peak) detailing the reactions of Los Angeles' emergency services to the eruption of a volcano off Wiltshire Boulevard. Okay, so the premise is inane, and the genre rarely produces works of subtle psychological insight, so when you pay your money to see this film, you should know what to expect. Thankfully, the makers are not completely unaware of both what is required here in terms of pyrotechnics and multi-character thumbnails and that while a sneaky sense of humour is evinced that this kind of thing works best when done with a straight face. Volcano handles its tone and pace very well, and despite a self-congratulatory dénoument where a child remarks on how the populace of the city are united in the face of tragedy, it just about takes you all the way.

Tommy Lee Jones plays the coordinator of emergency efforts in what is clearly an extension of his performance in The Fugitive and U.S. Marshals (though the character is also similar to Stallone's in Daylight). As he trips along in front of the lethal lava flow, he orders, bullies and thinks his way around a group of disparate characters with relative ease, and though he eventually surrenders to a big action movie climax which is a tad too silly for words, he is relatively believable in the role. Otherwise there are some dubious characterisations such as the would be feminist geologist (Anne Heche) who transforms mid way from an independent minded advisor to a surrogate mother, of a greedy masculine capitalist eager to repress his doctor wife into a life of domestic servitude, and of a ne'er do well daughter (Gaby Hoffman) who learns the meaning of responsibility in the face of disaster. But again, this genre is never about psychological roundedness, it is about employing the pawns to set up the strategy (or, more appropriately, dominoes to set up the rally), and when Jackson turns the screws with the big action highlights, it rarely goes wrong.

As spectacle, the film mounts a series of impressive confrontations with nature filmed with a proper sense of scale and for mounting odds. The standout scene is undoubtedly the confrontation with the first eruption where amassed city police, fire and road services do battle to halt the lava. The camera swoops and cranes dramatically over a field of angry oranges and black punctured with the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and the white streams of fire hoses. Helicopters swoop overhead and drop gallons of water and in a pure Hollywood moment of delightful self aggrandisment, they bring it to its proverbial knees. Of course, the real eruption has yet to occur... Though the data is less detailed than that provided in Dante's Peak, we get enough to sense the upping of the stakes when the fiery liquid begins spilling across familiar landscapes, evoking canny images of Hieronymous Bosch (who is the subject of one of the film's more amusing side gags). It draws you in to a world which is suitably convincing and suitably outrageous all at once, and though you constantly feel that it's all meant to be some kind of metaphor for the L.A. riots, you let it get on with the job and don't worry too much about it afterwards.

Like all disaster movies, the film plays out the mini dramas of its multiple characters in between scenes of carnage (though notably little actual death), and comes to a climax by tying most of them together. Several real life TV reporters have cameos to build the sense of scale and jokey 'realism' and it all works out in the classic tradition of happy endings.

Anyone who pays in to see Volcano knows what they're going to get, and they get it done quite well. Those who would decry it for vacuousness or bemoan the proliferation of special-effects driving spectacles (a rallying cry heard since 1895) are living in denial. Hokum here, and long may it abide.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.