Volcano Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie
by Erik Amaya
Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Volcano
As we often mention here, film genres never die. Westerns and musical continue to get made despite no longer being preeminent genres in the Hollywood studio system. Period pieces, prestige dramas, and glossy films adapted from popular novels find their way to theaters despite the supremacy of tentpole pictures and superhero movies. Similarly, the disaster genre makes limited comebacks every so often. In the mid-1990s, the genre experienced a mini resurgence thanks to the stunning success of the summer tentpole film Independence Day; which operates exactly like a disaster movie though it is rarely regarded as one. That film’s dominance in the summer of 1996 eventually led to dueling meteor movies (Armageddon and Deep Impact) and a quicker succession of dueling volcano movies. One year ago, we featured Dante’s Peak as your weekend cheesy and the time has finally come to talk about the other volcano film from 1997: Volcano.
The plot concerns Mike Roarke (Tommy Lee Jones), the director of Los Angeles’s Office of Emergency Management. He is dedicated to efficiently using city resources to combat daily troubles like brushfires and the like. But since he’s played by Tommy Lee Jones, he is also a workaholic; which is why his wife left him some time before the film begins.
As the film opens, we learn Mike is taking a vacation to spend time with his daughter Kelly (Gaby Hoffman). But he ends up going to work anyway when seven Department of Water and Power workers are apparently cooked to death in a sewer line under MacArthur Park. Mike visits the scene where he promptly gets into an argument with the DWP supervisor and Stan Olber (John Carroll Lynch), chairman of the Metro Transit Authority, the one agency outside Mike’s jurisdiction. Mike wants to shut down the subway line adjacent to the sewer line, but Stan fears shutting down subway system as it still needs to prove its reliability.
This leads to Mike calling on the expertise of Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), a seismologist from the fictional equivalent of the California Institute of Technology. They go out to the park, where Dr. Barnes immediately deduces a geological event has occurred, baking the DWP crew and rising the temperature in the park’s lake by six degrees in a matter of hours. Note entirely clear about her technical jargon, Mike asks her the single most important question of the film: “What is a geological event?”
Turns out its lava. It’s sluiced through a crack in the tectonic plates under Los Angeles and is now filling the sewer system. If it finds a blockage, pressure will build and the material will erupt out of any convenient spot, which for this story happens to be the La Brea Tar Pits near the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. And boy does it erupt, leading to one of the goofier disaster we’ve covered this month. Mike and Kelly happen to be on Wilshire when the eruption occurs. Dr. Jaye Calder (Jacqueline Kim) also happens to be on the street at that moment and offers aid to those hit by lava bombs — concentrated balls of lava which shoot out of the tar pit caldera. Chaos, of course, ensues as lava pours into the street, causing havoc on the city’s already strained infrastructure. And even if Mike can contain the lava at Wilshire and Fairfax, Dr. Barnes determines another eruption will occur at Wilshire and San Vincente; destroying the hospital where Dr. Calder took Kelly.
And if this sounds like a parody of a disaster movie, that’s part of the charm. While it is meant to be a straight-forward disaster picture, Volcano cannot help but be a little jokey about itself. Or, more to the point, jokey about its setting. Director Mick Jackson also directed L.A. Story, a Steve Martin comedy about the foibles of life in West Los Angeles. That sense of humor appears at odd times in Volcano. Stan and his MTA team place bets on the epicenter of a recent earthquake. Local oddities Angelyne and Dennis Woodruff lose property in the initial eruption. Dr. Calder’s husband Norman (John Corbett) is a luxury condo developer with little thought for “those people.” Because of these “har har” moments, the actual disaster never gets the chance to be credible.
One laughter-inducing example is a moment when Kelly gets too close to a lava bomb and it spits some lava on her leg. Mike rushes to put out the flame which quickly ignites on her jeans, but as the effect was accomplished with some early CGI, it just looks silly. Additionally, Kelly never seems all that injured despite Dr. Calder telling Mike the burn is serious. A little later in the film, Stan sacrifices himself to save some riders on a stranded Metro subway train. He lamely jumps into a pool of lava, tosses an unconscious train operator to his crew and then dies in one of the least convincing death scenes ever committed to screen. Considering how good Lynch is in other movies, it’s possible he intended it to be a joke even if the director or studio did not.
Which is the key to appreciating the cheese of Volcano. Even with some intentional comedy about LA’s “kooky” way of life, the disaster — and Mike’s heroic attempts to curtail the damage — is meant to be as serious as the situations in disaster movies like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. Nonetheless, there is a glorious insincerity throughout. Consider a weird subplot about a predominately black neighborhood near the tar pit and the white beat cops assigned to the area. The cops were cast to look like some of the officers involved in the Rodney King beating. One of the locals even compares them to notoriously racist former LAPD officers like Mark Furhman. But after the eruption, the overtly racist cop and the local work together to help Mike built a damn out of road construction materials. It is a simplistic tolerance narrative which should be satire, but Volcano wants you to see it as something meaningful despite the hamfisted presentation. A similar moment occurs at the end when a child is asked to identify his mother, but when he looks out at all the people covered in ash, he says “they all look the same.”
It is prime cheese.
The film also tries to launch some sort of romance between Dr. Barnes and Mike. Heche appears to carry this subplot entirely on her own while Jones rattles off instructions to anyone in ear shot (which includes Keith David as a completely believable LAPD officer). The film wisely spends little time with idea, but when it does appear, it comes off as perfunctory compliance to the genre.
Also laugh-worthy is the film’s attempts to launch other subplots. Where films like Avalanche introduce character conflicts only to drop them when the title disaster hits, Volcano limps through its attempts at conflict — like Mike’s argument with Stan — to get to the lava. It’s … not a bad choice. One of Volcano‘s most redeeming features is its brevity. At 104 minutes, it has little time to futz around with third tier characters. Even the Calders are more suggestions of characters than the sort you might see in Row 15 of an Airport movie. Nonetheless, it tries to put in time to establish Norman as a bad man so when Mike topples his new condo tower to steer the lava toward the ocean, it feels like karmic retribution. But then the movie forgets to show us his reaction to this event; negating the intended payoff.
And in the end, it somehow manages to be the lesser of the two 1997 volcano pictures. But make no mistake, Volcano is a cheesy delight with limp attempts to skewer Los Angeles peculiarities, actors like Don Cheadle committing to their half-developed characters, and a preposterous premise which really lends itself more to parody than a genuine disaster film. But really, it wouldn’t be the right sort of cheese without that sincerity.
Volcano is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms and as part of a HBO subscription.