Volcano (1997) poster

Volcano (1997)


USA. 1997.


Director – Mick Jackson, Screenplay – Jerome Armstrong & Billy Ray, Story – Jerome Armstrong, Producers – Andrew Z. Davis & Neal H. Moritz, Photography – Theo van de Sande, Music – Alan Silvestri, Visual Effects Supervisor – Mat Beck, Special Effects Supervisor – Hans Metz, Makeup Effects – Kevin Yagher Productions, Production Design – Jackson De Govia. Production Company – Donner-Shuler Productions/20th Century Fox.


Tommy Lee Jones (Mike Roark), Anne Heche (Dr Amy Barnes), Don Cheadle (Emmett Reese), Gaby Hoffmann (Kelly Roark), Jacqueline Kim (Dr Jaye Calder), John Corbett (Michael Calder), John Carroll Lynch (Stan Obler), Michael Rispoli (Gator Harris)


Los Angeles is shaken by an earthquake. Mike Roark, head of the Office of Emergency Management, sends a man down into the sewers to assess the damage, only for the man to return badly burned. Mike’s superiors put it down to a burst steam pipe but seismologist Amy Barnes convinces Roark that it is a geological event. As they investigate, a river of lava erupts from beneath the sewers, endangering the entire city.

The success of Jurassic Park (1993) brought about a sudden revival of the disaster movie, where the 1970s genre was dressed up anew with lavish CGI effects. In 1997 alone, we had two competing big-budget volcano films with both Volcano and Dante’s Peak (1997). There was an enormous contest between the two as to which film would open first. The race was won by Dante’s Peak, which appeared two months before Volcano, and proved a lacklustre bore. Indeed, after the sheer banality of Dante’s Peak, all it seemed that Volcano had to do to better it was simply turn up. What one least expected was that the competition between the two would instead be over which was the dullest.

Dante’s Peak had a series of spectacular effects set-pieces but when it tried to write human drama it was mind-bogglingly dull; Volcano fails to even rise to that level. At most, Volcano has a routinely competent array of special effects. However, there is only a single sequence that has one even moderately on the edge of the seat – one with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche being lifted over the river of lava on the end of a firetruck ladder as it is slowly crumbling beneath them.

The other set-piece that does stand out somewhat is where a rescue worker deliberately jumps into the river of lava from a train and is burned alive because it is the only way to throw an unconscious train driver to safety – one remembers it because of the sheer nastiness of seeing someone burned alive.

Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche detect lava running beneath the streets of L.A. in Volcano (1997)
Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche detect lava running beneath the streets of L.A.

On the plot side, Volcano proves even more dreary than Dante’s Peak. The script throws up clunkily obvious exposition lines like “What are tectonic plates?” and “What is magma?” Dante’s Peak at least went out and did its research about volcanoes and threw in some interesting facts about rivers of acid and the impossibility of flying through ash; Volcano appears to have done the most cursory reading and many of the things happening are patently impossible – helicopters do indeed fly through ash, people move extremely near to the river of lava without encountering the slightest problem with heat. In perhaps the most ridiculous scene, we have an end fadeout on downtown Los Angeles where life appears to be going on the same as usual despite the presence of an active volcano in the middle of the city.

That is not as bad though as the human implausibilities. There are times that the characterisations do not seem in the slightest way connected with real people. There is a would-be heart-rendering scene where one rescue worker who, unable to remove a colleague from fallen debris, instead of going to safety himself or calling for help, elects to stay there and allow the rubble to be brought down on top of the both of them. There are trite little moral lessons about racism – the Black man who tries to get help only to be dragged away by intolerant cops as a troublemaker but who then proves himself by helping lift the concrete buffers; the boy surveying the ash-coloured survivors at the end and noting “They all look alike”.

Equally so, the film seems to miss many other obvious moral targets – it fails to make us delight in any comeuppance when the lavish high-rise tower that self-important developer John Corbett so prizes has to be brought down; indeed does not even give Corbett a chance to realise the error of his self-interested ways; nor do we get the standard scene where the authorities who refuse to believe there is a problem are duly shamed.

A river of lava runs through the streets of Los Angeles in Volcano (1997)
A river of lava runs through the streets of Los Angeles

At least, unlike Dante’s Peak, the script does not drag itself down by trying to generate romance between Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche or a lengthy preamble about the lead character(s) fighting to get the menace taken seriously when everybody knows the upshot of the film is that they are going to be proven right. The film has cast good actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche but sticks both in roles that require them to do nothing other than duck fireballs.

British-born director Mick Jackson had begun working in television and had great acclaim with the tv movie Threads (1984), which offered an incredibly bleak documentary-like depiction of nuclear war. His greatest box-office success with the Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston romantic drama The Bodyguard (1992). His one other venture into genre material was the whimsical Steve Martin romantic fantasy L.A. Story (1991).

Trailer here

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