I must be getting old. I mean, I can remember back when movies had apparently
superfluous components like plots and characters. Nowadays it's just action,
action, action! Oy!
1997's Volcano truly exemplifies the fairly recent trend in movies to
completely jettison any semblance of story or characterization in favor of
action. At the start of the film, we're given an extremely cursory
introduction to each of the many different folks we'll follow throughout the
movie. Basically, we learn their names (which I quickly forgot, since that
knowledge wasn't very necessary) and their jobs; then the fur starts to fly!
Like most disaster films, Volcano boasts only a couple of main characters
but features a boatload of supporting roles. There's very little
differentiation between the information we get about these two types of
characters. The main roles feature Tommy Lee Jones, who works at the Los
Angeles Office of Emergency Stuff and who apparently feels a deep sense of
responsibility to do his job; he's a real micromanager sort. We also get Gaby
Hoffman as his pubescent daughter; she seeks independence but nonetheless -
BIG PLOT POINT! - tends to freeze under pressure. Finally, we have Anne Heche
as this geological chick who first spots the danger from the volcano and
offers helpful hints along the way. Gratuitously, Jones and Heche develop an
understated love interest along the way. I could give you these characters'
names, but frankly, I can't remember, and there's really no point in checking;
it's all completely irrelevant.
Since the filmmakers were not willing to actually bother to flesh out
characters about whom we could possibly care, some shorthand measures were
used to provoke an emotional response from the audience. In a good movie,
feelings of sadness or loss are inspired by gradually developing characters
who mean something to the audience; that way, when something happens to them,
we're genuinely moved. Look at E.T. for example: he was just a damned
PUPPET, but there wasn't a dry eye in the house when we thought he died. Why?
Because the character was handled realistically (well, as realistically as one
can depict a space monkey) and because his relationships with the audience and
the cast were developed in such a way that we really grew to care for him.
That doesn't happen in Volcano. Since there ARE no actual characters, and
even if there were, this film lacks the guts to injure any of the main ones, a
cynical kind of emotional shorthand comes into play. A few times during the
movie, secondary characters die tragic yet noble deaths, all while dramatic
music plays. I found this whole experience manipulative to the extreme. Some
of these characters go through terrible trauma just to elicit a cheap
emotional thrill. For example, one dude tries to rescue a guy from a subway
car that's rapidly becoming lavafied; after he jumps out of the back of the
train, he gets Wicked Witched while he heroically tosses the injured guy to
safety. Clearly the filmmakers felt they needed to insert some "serious
drama" into the piece, but it's all just cheap and sleazy emotional
Bizarrely, Volcano also attempts a cheesy "we're all brothers" racial
understanding theme. A gratuitous segment in which a vaguely racist white cop
harasses a black guy who wants help for his neighborhood involves this theme.
It ends happily, of course. Just in case we missed the point, the film ends
with a wee lad surveying a crowd of adults who are covered in ash - "Look at
their faces!" he squeals. "They all look the same!" Now THAT'S real subtle.
Hey, I have nothing against the promotion of racial harmony, but I fail to see
the point of this bit. It all seems like still more quick and dirty emotional
One last comment about the manipulative nature of this film: as noted earlier,
Jones' daughter Hoffman apparently panics in dangerous situations and freezes.
Why? So we can see Jones rescue her! This happens twice in the film. It's a
pretty pathetic way to involve Our Hero in the action. It's not quite as bad
as the tragic deaths, but it comes across as a ridiculously transparent plot
In addition to our unbelievably sketchy and undeveloped characters, we receive
not even the vaguest semblance of a plot. Essentially, a volcano has appeared
in L.A., and Jones has to stop it. Now, I'm no geologist or volcanologist (I'm
a loveologist, baby!), but I doubt that there really IS any way to stop a
volcano, much less through the pretty absurd measures on view here. Well, at
least it gives the characters something today, and their actions actually seem
less contrived than the ridiculous ways Our Heroes were kept in harm's way
during Dante's Peak.
Ah, yes - Dante's Peak, the other volcano movie from early 1997. As with
last year's Armageddon vs. Deep Impact Battle of the Plummeting Space
Debris, those two inspired many long, vicious worldwide "which one's better"
battles among internet geeks. Dante's Peak clearly wins out as far as
realism goes, but I definitely give Volcano the nod because it's damned
At the end of the day, that's really what matters. God help me, but I enjoyed
Volcano. I could spend all day picking it apart; it's one of the flimsiest
houses of cinematic cards I've seen. The entire film is patently absurd.
Still, even WITHOUT considerable suspension of disbelief, it does what it
needs to do: it provides a tremendous amount of terrific thrills.
The main problem I had with Dante's Peak revolved around the fact that it
was simply DULL. If I want to see a movie infused with realism, I'll watch
Elizabeth. When I want to see stuff blow up, I'll watch Volcano. Who
cares if it's true to life? It's exciting, damn it!
Volcano also boasts a classy cast that helps give the film more credibility.
In addition to Jones and Heche, we get the sublime Don Cheadle. That's good
enough for me! Who did Dante's Peak offer in an analogous role? Charles
Hallahan, an actor remembered mainly as the guy whose head sprouted legs in
The Thing. Admittedly, the cast of Volcano largely phones in their
performances - Tommy Lee was in no danger of receiving a second Oscar for THIS
wooden work - but I'll take half-asses Jones and Cheadle over full-cheeked
Pierce Brosnan and Hallahan any day. (Okay, Linda Hamilton would always be my
pick over Anne Heche, but at least the latter had a role in which she got to
DO something other than run away from flaming debris.)
Dante's Peak definitely boasted better special effects, however. Actually,
Volcano looks okay for the most part; the effects generally work pretty
well. One extremely notable exception involves the ever-important lava
itself. This film shows veritable rivers of the computer animated stuff, and
it looks terrible. The movie's realism hits an absolute nadir when we have to
watch that crap flow past us. I've seen grade school science experiments that
better simulated lava.
One other regard in which Dante's Peak beats Volcano is their respective
DVD editions. Universal gave Dante's Peak their special edition treatment.
It boasted an amazingly crisp picture, fine sound, and a raft of supplemental
In comparison, Volcano can't compete with that package. The picture quality
is generally good, though it occasionally seems strangely flat and
periodically offers a fairly soft focus. It handles the many low lights
scenes well, however, and colors appear solid.
The only area in which Volcano bests Dante's Peak involves its Dolby
Digital 5.1 mix. While the latter's soundtrack gave my system a workout, it
was nothing compared the sonic bombast found during Volcano. That film
offers very active split surround effects and creates an immersive sound
environment. It wasn't quite up to "A+" material such as Twister, but it
Volcano doesn't even remotely compete with Dante's Peak in the area of
supplemental materials. The latter included an audio commentary, a
documentary, and a few other features (be sure to read my review for more
info!) but Volcano simply gives us a theatrical trailer and some rudimentary
cast and crew bios. Amazingly, Dante's Peak lists for only $5 more than
Volcano but it provides a much greater value.
That said, if I had to pick just one, I'd go with Volcano. I love the care
with which Universal put together the terrific Dante's Peak DVD, but at the
end of the day, the movie's the important thing. Personally, I greatly prefer
Volcano. It offers a much greater sense of thrills and excitement than does
the much more sedate Dante's Peak. While Fox does nothing to boost interest
in Volcano with its DVD release, nor does this version harm the film. It
offers a solid rendering of an incredibly flawed guilty pleasure.