Volcano (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Volcano is one of those films (like last year's Twister and Independence Day) for which it doesn't matter what I (or any other critic) have to say. Disaster movie junkies will go to get their fix; those who can't tell the difference between The Towering Inferno and Die Hard will stay away. Still, the burning question is probably the most obvious one: Which is better, Volcano or Dante's Peak? Issues of credibility aside (both movies stray deeply into the preposterous, the former more often than the latter), there's no question whatsoever that Volcano makes for the better night out. In fact, this is one of the best pure disaster movies ever made (not that it has much competition). Congratulations to director Mick Jackson for a job well done.

From the opening credits, when the camera takes us through a crack in the earth to uncover the raging torrent of molten rock below, there's a sense that Volcano might actually live up to its pre-release hype. Once the credits are finished, the film adheres to the rigid, uncompromising structure embraced by nearly all disaster movies. The first few scenes introduce us to the major players. Next comes the buildup to the eruption -- thirty minutes of taut, well-paced anticipation. Then, exhibiting the flair and style of a master, Jackson uses tremendous visual effects, ear- popping digital sound, and a high-energy tension to usher in the coup de grace.

Character development fits into the "obligatory" category, but that's a significant improvement over what Twister offered. Here, we have Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones), the head of Los Angeles' Office of Emergency Management (OEM), who smells a disaster around every corner. When a mild earthquake (4.9 on the Richter Scale) shakes the city, he abandons a vacation with his thirteen-year old daughter (Gaby Hoffman) to come into work, uncertain how his second-in- command, Emmett Reese (Don Cheadle), will handle the situation on his own. Soon, however, strange things start happening. Several men working underground are scalded to death. The water temperature of a lake goes up by six degrees in twelve hours. And the La Brea tar pits begin to pop and bubble in earnest. Concerned that some geological cataclysm may be approaching, Roark requests the help of an expert. He gets Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), who believes that L.A. could be sitting atop a volcano that's about to become active.

In real life, I don't know anyone who believes that the residents of Los Angeles have anything to fear from volcanoes, but this film makes it very easy to suspend that particular disbelief. Not only is Volcano a hell of a ride, but the script has enough intelligence (relatively speaking, that is) that it's possible to become engrossed in the movie without constantly being jerked back to reality by stupid and obvious plot contrivances. Oh, there are missteps, such as an ill-conceived subplot about racial strife between a black youth and a white cop, but Volcano surprisingly manages to avoid many of the most common disaster movie pitfalls (probably because it keeps the number of major characters to a minimum).

Tommy Lee Jones' Roark is a wonderfully heroic figure -- a man of action who never has time to rest. The fate of the city rests on his shoulders, and he knows it. Jones' fierce, unflagging portrayal helps us accept Roark not only as the man to save L.A., but as a loving father who is more concerned about his daughter's safety than that of every other citizen. Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco), a young actress who has experienced quite a bit of recent exposure, offers a spunky interpretation of her sidekick-turned-love interest role. Don Cheadle (Rosewood) is in top form -- most of the film's comic moments revolve around him. The rest of the cast isn't nearly as impressive, but, since no one else has much screen time, any number of acting deficiencies can be forgiven.

All that most people want from a disaster movie is a jolt of adrenaline and a chance to "ooh" and "ahh", and Volcano fills both cravings. After all, there's a lot at stake -- this isn't some sleepy Northwestern town, it's the second most populous city in the United States (L.A. has suddenly become a favorite target of motion picture mayhem -- see Independence Day, Escape from L.A., and next year's Godzilla for other examples). The special effects are top-notch. When a lava river starts flowing down Wilshire Boulevard, we believe that it's actually happening.

Normally, I detest any voiceover narration, but Volcano manages to do something in that department to enhance the picture. Many scenes feature broadcast commentary by television stations reporting on the crisis. There's more than a hint of parody as correspondents react in horror to events around them while staying out of harm's way. Screenwriters Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray should be commended for this aspect of their script -- it's right on target.

Volcano has opened the "summer" movie season at an astoundingly early late-April date. But there's no mistaking this as anything but a blockbuster trying to get a running jump on competition like The Fifth Element and The Lost World. This isn't the kind of film where it's worth waiting for the video tape -- it's too big and brash, and demands the speakers and atmosphere of a state-of-the-art theater. Like Twister, it pushes the cinematic experience closer to the level of an amusement park ride. However, unlike Twister, Volcano doesn't demand a complete short-circuit of all mental functions. Although you see this film for the spectacle, the other stuff (characters, plot, etc.) doesn't get in the way, and that's the formula for success in this genre. Volcano triumphs with a resounding bang.

Volcano (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 1997-04-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1