A review of the movie "Volcano," directed by Mick Jackson and starrying Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. Reviewed by Gary Kamiya.

Topics: Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volcano, Movies,


a strange hallucination came over me as I watched “Volcano.” Suddenly, the clock had spun merrily back to the Eisenhower years, the whole world had become the Super Duper Late Show and every dreadful ’50s sci-fi pic ever made was playing at once.

A legion of officious scientists in lab coats were using coat hangers to explain why Mothra, Meteor X-9 and the dread Ur-Ebolic Monkeys of Madagascar could never destroy Tokyo, crash into the Earth and attack the expedition. Terrible male leads — apparently hired solely because they appeared to be eternally concentrating on sucking in their guts — gesticulated and frowned, ordering a vast army of heaving-chested lady scientists in tightly tucked-in blouses NOT TO GO DOWN THERE, IT’S TOO DANGEROUS! Office buildings, trains, water tanks, trees were seized by giant octopuses, depleting model stores across America. The officious scientists looked up in terror as flaming large objects fell upon them. Ridiculous plots, cardboard characters, dreadful pacing, Marvel-comics dialogue lay waste to everything in sight.

Sweating and confused, I refocused my eyes on the screen — EEGAH! IN A HIDEOUS TIME-LOOP OUT OF THE TWILIGHT ZONE, IT WAS ALL HAPPENING — AGAIN! TELL THE OTHERS! IT’S COMING! NO AIR!! RUN! RUN! Gasp, choke … THUD.

Is there no progress? Can a thousand years of human striving, the grand and inspiring pageant of Homo sapiens marching forward to conquer space, time and formulaic movies all be a cruel delusion? Must disaster flicks repeat the imbecilities of their dumb predecessors, FOREVER?

Yep. When it comes to Hollywood’s E-ticket extravaganzas, monumentally stupid plots, cigar-Indian acting and onion-in-yo’-face emotional manipulation will never go out of style. I guess it doesn’t matter that much — after all, you don’t go to these things for their Shakespearean insight. But sometimes it seems like disaster flicks go out of their way, walk that extra mile to make ordinary narrative contrivances mind-bogglingly stupid. Is it an upstaging issue? Is there a monsters union? Is Mothra sulking in his trailer, saying “I’m not coming out unless the male lead has a lower IQ than me?” More research is needed on this important subject.

“Volcano,” a flatulent blast of superheated air from the seething bowels of Hollywood, features all the usual idiocies — implausibility on an epic scale, bogus “human interest” elements, plot developments that offer all the surprises of a Bob Dole speech. But it also brings a new and icky twist to the blow-up genre: “Multicultural” feelgood schmaltz right out of AT&T commercials. If only Los Angeles could be devastated by a vast volcanic eruption every day, we’d all live in racial harmony!

So you’ve got your emergency chief, Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones, who must have needed a new swimming pool or something), a divorced dad with this 13-year-old daughter, Kelly, who is having a real hard time with the situation, to the point where she ain’t got no common sense and keeps running off into the basements of 60-story buildings that are about to be dynamited. You’ve got your spunky, sexy gal geologist, Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), whose crowning achievement comes when she points up in the sky at a screaming lava bomb that is about to fall and destroy whatever it lands on and says to a crowd of guys, “Wait till you see where it’s going to land, then duck!” Or something like that — it was hard to hear because the soundtrack was kind of noisy. Anyway, it sure is useful to have a spunky, sexy gal geologist on hand to tell you to duck when huge flaming objects are falling on you at hundreds of miles per hour.

The magma hits the fan when an earthquake opens a hitherto-unknown volcanic vent under Wilshire Boulevard. Seven city workers are burned to death and the La Brea Tar Pits start to boil, but of course this doesn’t alarm the transportation chief — keep calm, no biggie, we must keep the subways running! (Guess what happens to him. Lava hot tub!) Roark and Barnes know better, natch. Oddly, however, they feel they must investigate every individual volcanic event, up close and personal. Hardly a moment goes by that the only two people who can save L.A. aren’t jauntily descending under the earth to get a better look at the ocean of superheated lava that is racing toward them at high speed, killing everything in its path. Unorthodox managerial style, but Roark is a hands-on kind of guy. In the most unintentionally comic moment in the film, as the lava is about to overflow and all hell is breaking loose and people are running wildly around, the camera suddenly cuts to Roark, holding a jackhammer and blasting away at a piece of cement. Well, you know what they say about idle hands.

Eruption happens! There are some first-rate explosions, shattering-glass sequences and, above all, lava bombs (say what you will, but these are some EXCELLENT lava bombs). L.A. blows up real good. Great sound effects, too — speakers are much better now than in the ’50s. The intrepid duo (it looks at the end like they’re gonna get together romantically, but frankly she could do a LOT better — Tommy Lee may be possessed of superhuman L.A.-saving abilities, but he’s kinda long in the tooth for her) must figure out a way to stop the lava before it floods over West L.A. This involves creating a barrier. Inexplicably, no heavy equipment is available, so straining policemen must try to lift huge concrete traffic barriers by hand. Luckily, a large black man who had previously been harassed and arrested by a mean L.A. cop is standing by! Off come the handcuffs, and the barrier drops down like buttah. Whereupon the cops don’t bust him, and he looks at the cops with dawning respect, and they look at him with dawning respect, and one of the cops — I’m not kidding — salutes him! All this dawning respect., kinda makes you feel all warm and tingly, like we are the world, or we are all Tiger Woods, or something. And if they’d hired the “I love you man” Budweiser guy to play the cop, it would have made you feel even more warm and tingly.


Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>