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

Published May 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)


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.


By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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Fiction Movies Science Fiction And Fantasy Volcano