Volcano (1997)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 22 August (8.00 pm)
Channel: E4
IMDb Link

The Coast is Toast

The disaster movies revival of the nineties eventually turned its attention to volcanoes, and this entry, the second magma flick from 1997. Whilst Dante’s Peak is roundly terrible and remains unwatched since its initial viewing, Volcano has a little more going for it. Largely, this is because it concerns the response of the emergency services to a sudden eruption in central Los Angeles, but there’s a lot to be said also for the film’s two stars – Tommy Lee Jones’s grizzled crisis agency manager and Anne Heche as an intrepid geologist.

Jones, an actor who didn’t find fame until entering his lived-in middle ages, is perfectly cast as Mike Roark, the OEM (Office of Emergency Management) man at the centre of attempts to curb the lava flow. Essentially reviving his star making turn as Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, Jones is the film’s reliable core, barking instructions and taking control. His relationship with Emmit Reese (Don Cheadle), his ambitious right hand man at OEM, is particularly good, as the two men spar verbally whilst making apparent the mutual respect between them. Heche is fine also. It’s an unfortunate indictment of conservative Hollywood that her career was adversely affected when news of her same-sex relationship with Ellen DeGeneres turned into a media storm. At the time she was developing into a major star, largely because of her ability to feature strongly in films like these, but the high profile roles have slipped since then.

Such a shame that Volcano couldn’t simply focus on the efforts of the professionals. It’s undeniably at its best when covering the practical problems faced by Jones and Heche, but it’s also a project carrying a $90 million budget and therefore aiming to please everyone. Jones get saddled with a sub-plot involving his demanding daughter, played by Gaby Hoffman, a totally unnecessary bit of business that’s been shoehorned in for the human interest angle and frequently places her in danger. It gets worse. Hoffman is loaded onto a crusading Doctor (Jacqueline Kim) and ends the film as Mother Theresa. Kim comes out poorly also, thanks to a frankly unbelievable thread that finds her falling out with her selfish boyfriend who wants her to leave her patients behind and flee with him.

Volcano takes place in a post-Rodney King LA, which guarantees plot points zeroing in on tensions between white police officers and black homies. Not only do we get a hackneyed meeting of minds concerning a black dude and fascist copper, there’s also the awful schmaltz where a kid can’t tell black from white because everyone’s covered in ash. Yuck! The fate of railroad manager Stan Carroll Lynch is rather better handled, even if it leads to the film’s one moment of utter grisliness.

Otherwise, this is a film with 12 Certificate levels of blood and gore i.e. very little. There’s a neat sense of parody involving the number of media types who are on hand to explain what’s happening to befuddled audiences, not to mention some poorer scenes in which Heche has to describe what magma is to Jones and, by extension, to dullard viewers. As for the volcano itself, the eruption is handled rather well, with lava, fireballs and boiling gas emissions giving a decent impression of the sheer inability of a modern city to cope with nature’s wrath. The build-up is better than the lava flow business, particularly as the promise of natural apocalypse creates enough suspense on its own merits, but also because it doesn’t rely on CGI lava that frankly looks primitive to 2012 eyes.

Volcano: **