When the disaster movie had its late 90’s mini-revival, Hollywood did what Hollywood does best. They raced to make a film with the same premise at the same time with the hope that one would triumph the other. Whilst arguably Dante’s Peak may have won at the International Box Office, both films took a sufficiently different twist on the ‘escape from an improbable volcano’ premise and both warrant your time. Volcano is the one that’s more fun though if you are looking to switch off and enjoy a disaster movie romp.
The disasters faced
A volcano in the city, lava bombs, the very slow onset of molten lava, poisonous gas, being stuck in a train or firetruck, being a child who likes to wander, being remotely heroic in your job role and dealing with an idiot chief who doesn’t understand how geology works. Not that Volcano will be accurate in any shape or form.
Ah Civil Servants! Even when you are in charge of running the city, you don’t want to take the blame for things. Poor Mike Roark. He just wants the city to run smoothly so when some gas engineers bake alive in a gas incident one morning, he is naturally worried. Working with his second in command Emmit whilst Chief Sindelar, who looks after city management, is out town, he tries to understand what has happened as various theories pop out of the minds of other city leads. Transport chief Stan, who has a subway running next to the incident area doesn’t want to stop the trains for an investigation and everyone backs down.
Enter Dr Amy Barnes and her assistant Rachel who feel like it could have been caused by geological event and as tremors are felt, they decide to go and investigate in secret after Mike has a lucky escape from some superheated sulphur gas that nearly cooks him and engineer Gator. Their timing to try it first thing in the morning backfires hugely as when they go to investigate, its exactly when all hell breaks loose. A volcano spews into life at the La Brea Tar Pits and at the original gas incident site, a huge gas event takes place killing Rachel infront of Amy. As she climbs out of the sewers upset, she notices ash and the fact the sky is now dark again – welcome to LA Mr Volcano!
Mike is at the La Brea Tar Pits (RIP mammoth structure by the way) with his whiny smartarse daughter Kelly. The two could make their own alternative bro-cop show but as the lava spews out, they are caught in the cross fire of lava bombs. Also there is Dr Jaye Calder and a reporter who narrates everyone dying around him like he commentating on a horse race. A lava bomb spurt catches Kelly and burns her leg and so Mike hands her over to Jaye who is collecting injured victims and moving them to their local hospital. By the time Amy catches up to Mike, the lava is in full flow moving through the city destroying everything it touches.
Whilst it pours through expensive highstreets where Lt Ed Fox and LA cops Terry & Bud are trying to save prized possessions, a class and race war is threatening to break out as downtown is not getting the help they need. Kevin from downtown is far from impressed and goes searching for answers and some fire hoses! A city doesn’t just run above ground, the subway tunnels are teeming with lava too. Stan spots one of his trains has not returned and is trapped in a tunnel. He’ll wish he didn’t go down to help the driver and passengers out by the end of the movie.
Volcano spends its time focusing on a concerted effort to stop the crawl of lava by funnelling it and then dumping as much water as possible. Whilst this might be successful on the surface, making it turn to a crust akin to a badly burned shepherds pie, those pesky subway tunnels and sewers allow the lava to take a new flow. The problem? Its heading straight for a new eruption right on top of the hospital! Here is where Jaye is treating patients and having a marital breakdown with property mogul husband Norman. Here also is where Kelly has been left to look after a couple of children – one of which, a boy called Tommy, decides to wander off, meaning that both Kelly and Tommy will miss all the evacuation as the new volcano bubbles up. With Mike and Amy plotting how to stop it, or at least limit the damage – who will survive to the end of this toasty adventure? The coast is indeed toast!
Why is it worth watching?
There are a lot of things I love about Volcano. Its opening credits showing LA sunrise and the city moving into motion is 1970’s peak disaster movie. The way how characters move in and out of other characters scenes and destinies is a tangled web of fun and coincidence. What makes it fun is that the chemistry between Mike, Amy and Emmit feels like a ping pong ball on speed.
Volcano has a rather unique problem. The actual lava flow itself moves at a crawl. If you simply walked quite quickly, you’d get out of its way. Therefore its weirdly less of a threat unless you are doing something silly or you are already injured. This then puts Mike and Amy into some crazy situations and the way they react to it is more akin to a Lethal Weapon double act than a serious survival movie. You then have Emmit constantly chipping in with radio chatter and quick fire remarks as he deals with logistical nightmares. As a trio, it shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does and that’s down to fun writing and everyone pouring in their energy on set.
The set pieces themselves look great. The carnage of entire streets on fire looks impressive today and the way how the action is shot means that even though sometimes the threat could be small, it amps up the danger in clever production instead. The score is also great for adding spice too. It even has some iconic moments (melty man) too and that isn’t something ever film gets to have.
The other thing I like about Volcano is that is also at odds with its own tone. You’ll have Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche dangling off a firemans ladder making jokes before cutting to a fascinating side story around possessions vs class. I feel like some of the side stories fizzle out a little too easily or just stop and I wish we had more time with a resolution for some of the secondary characters – especially Kevin, who spends the film fighting to get just one fire engine to save his house. You wouldn’t expect a serious comment about class and race in a film like this but it does. Whilst the conclusion of it felt a bit ‘meh’, it adds an interesting slant that hasn’t been done much since. Don’t even mention the puppy escape scene. My mum closed her eyes until it was over – now that’s cinema!
There are some great lava, water, fire and steam effects throughout the movie that mix together practical and CGI beautifully. There are a couple of wide shots right at the end that haven’t ages quite as well as the rest of the movie but on the whole, for a movie 23 years old, it still holds up. There’s also some nice miniature demolishing (which is where the movie doesn’t quite look fabulous) and some decent burn make up too.
Everyone in this movie plays a singular note. Mike is a workaholic. Amy is plucky and headstrong. Kelly is sarcastic. Emmit just wants Mike’s job. Stan is drowning in nicotine patches. Jaye puts patients before love. Norman is a money hungry numpty. Ed, Bud and Terry are ‘just doing their job ma’am’ and Kevin is a bit mouthy. Whilst she isn’t in it long, Rachel is good geeky fun too. They have zero character progression (unless you count end of movie romance from nowhere and Kelly attempting to look after two children and failing) but strangely I didn’t mind. Everyone is in reaction mode and so they just react to type. It makes for good popcorn fun and no-one is full on serious either. It makes the film very easy to watch.
Well, we now have a name for this crisis. It is, according to the US Geological Survey, a volcano!when the news in america can’t spot a volcano in front of their own eyes and you are literally screaming at them to not go into lava like a moth to a lightbulb!
Three memorable moments
- Mr Stan the Melty Man!
- The puppy rescue! Phew!
- Mike and Amy rescuing the homeless man and then being fireman laddered over a huge amount of lava!
The obligatory weird moment
I understand the need for exposition and explanation but when Tommy Lee Jones asks the question ‘what’s magma?’ to Anne Heche, I genuinely laughed.
The drinking game
Each time Emmit has to have a three way call with someone. Don Cheedle is an expert at looking like he is doing maximum business at all times during this movie.
Whilst some may scoff at its more carefree, lighthearted attitude compared to Dante’s Peak more serious and family focused volcanic antics, I think Volcano is underrated. It has plenty of action and pace, a dose of stupidity, some terrible jokes, awkward flirting that didn’t need to happen and one of the most iconic deaths in disaster movie history. What’s not to enjoy?
Rating: 4 /5 – Excellent
If you enjoyed Volcano then you may also enjoy…
- Dante’s Peak – The other big budget volcano movie from 1997. More serious in tone.
- Airplane Vs Volcano – This joyous b-movie mashes together to sub-genres beautifully.
- When Time Ran Out – Irwin Allen’s unintentionally funny volcanic joy.