Volcano is directed by Mick Jackson and stars Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gaby Hoffmann, Don Cheadle, and Keith David.
There is something truly depressing about Mick Jackson's 1997 disaster movie, Volcano: it's nowhere near as cheesy as it should be. By all means, having Tommy Lee Jones try to save the city of Los Angeles from hot lava has all the makings for a fine 1990's display of hammy acting and equally hammy dialogue, both of which are staples of effects-driven disaster flicks. While that's not to say that Volcano is completely devoid of cheese, it inexplicably settles for being as serviceable as possible, thereby creating some sort of awkward, tone-deaf movie that is, all things considered, ...average? I suppose that's a small victory for a genre that inspires only slightly more hope than the video game genre, but I can't be too sure.
So, Volcano follows Michael Roark (Lee Jones), the head of the Los Angeles Office of Emergency Management. After an earthquake strikes, Roark forgoes his vacation time to come into the office and investigate the crisis. The investigation leads him to MacArthur Park, where several utility workers are found dead in a storm drain, having been burned to death. When Roark and one of his coworkers go down the storm drain to investigate, they nearly escape being burned to death themselves when hot gases begin to emit out of cracks in the concrete walls. Geologist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) is called to the scene, and she suspects that a volcano is forming underneath the city. This suspicion turns out to be true when during the wee hours one morning, volcanic smoke and ash begin to billow out in the La Brea Tar Pits, followed by lava bombs being launched into the air and a lava flow making its way through Wilshire Boulevard. It's up to Michael Roark. Amy Barnes, and the rest of LA's public security to try and stop this volcano from turning all of Los Angeles into a smoldering pile of volcanic ash.
I have not come to try and discredit Volcano for any and all of its scientific inaccuracies. I believe there is little to no critical value in calling out a disaster movie because the director and screenwriters are not world renowned scientists and therefore, easily screw up how rain, snow, and, in the case of Volcano, how tectonic plates work. If filmmakers aren't allowed to bend the rules of nature a little bit, how can these kind of movies happen at all? Let's not make any kind of fuss about how logical is is that a giant volcano can form smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles. Let's make a fuss about how Volcano has little to no concern towards anything that doesn't directly involve lava, magma, and smoke.
- Sometimes, Volcano is able to dish out a pretty cool-looking shot of a building getting hit by a lava bomb or a car being melted by lava. Although these are mostly offset by the "obviously-designed-by-a-computer" shots of fire bombs and flowing lava, it's not to say that Volcano doesn't come without at least a few thrilling moments. The emergence of the volcano, aka when the disaster finally hits, is one of the more fear-inducing sequences I've seen in any kind of film centered on tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, etc. The framing and details of certain shots are enough to make you feel like you're actually there yourself, witnessing the volcanic chaos unfold. Such feelings don't last as the film lingers on, but they're there, existing for at least small chunk of time to enhance the viewing experience.
- Tommy Lee Jones, who on paper should be the saving grace of Volcano, turns out to be one of the worst parts of it. Not for one single second does Jones seem concerned or look as if he's losing hope of stopping the volcano from destroying Los Angeles, playing the volcano disaster like a grumpy old Dad with a "been there, done that" attitude that suggests he knows that he has everything under control, no matter how many buildings are burning or people are burned alive. I suppose it's better than poor Don Cheadle, who has nothing better to do during the movie other than stand behind a TV screen and talk to Jones through a microphone.
- Also one of the worst parts: the screenplay. It's bad enough that practically everyone is rushing through their lines because Mick Jackson wants to get to the volcanic action as fast as possible. The true killer is that the script merely skims the surface of what's going on, what's important, and why we should care about any of it. Trying to figure out the scientific facts about the volcano given to us by Amy Barnes is easy as pie....if the pie was made of volcanic ash and rock solid magma. Character development is non-existent, and nothing of note comes out of the futile subplots. If Mick Jackson and screenwriters Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray seriously wanted me to be enthralled by the volcano erupting, they should have taken more time to ensure that I cared about who was in the middle of said eruption.
So despite a few cheap thrills, Volcano turns out to be a frustrating experience, not being cheesy and ridiculous enough to pass as an entertaining work of trash, nor being polished enough to work as a decent disaster movie that would rank as one of the better ones out there. Tommy Lee Jones and the screenplay are the lowlights of a movie that is routine at best, and last I checked, hammy acting and bad writing are the norm for disaster movies. Perhaps it's a little too morbid of me to wish for a movie to be hilariously bad, but when a movie like Volcano is as on the fence as it is, you can only hope that it will fall over backward and make the easier choice, because hilariously bad is a treasure that good movies can never give us. Sad that a guy of Tommy Lee Jones' caliber had to suffer though. Guess he got lazy following his Oscar victory.
Recommend? No, but it wouldn't be a total waste of time if you want to watch it anyway.
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