In the good old days — before the epic scale of Roland Emmerich's 2012 and everything Michael Bay is responsible for in the past decade — we had simpler, more contained disaster movies. Apocalypse, schmocalypse: 1997's Volcano focuses solely on a volcano destroying Los Angeles.
I mean, that's downright slice-of-life when compared to the full destruction of the Earth. And these films weren't grounded in Mayan calendars but in science — or, you know, whatever crap Anne Heche's geologist is spouting.
I've always been fond of disaster movies: there's something so absurd yet triumphant about flicks like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. And when you add "science" into the mix, something even more magical happens. Suddenly we're not thinking about the plausibility of a volcano erupting underneath Los Angeles — we're planning our escape routes. (Full disclosure: I was 10 when I saw Volcano in theaters.) There's a glorious faux-plausibility to the proceedings that makes movies like Volcano all the more entertaining.
Some have speculated that the ‘90s resurgence of disaster movies has to do with contemporary innovations in special effects techniques. Which, yes, makes a lot of sense. But I'm sure it also had something to do with Y2K panic — or, more generally, the fear that as the millennium approached, inexplicable awfulness was going down. (One of my favorite WTF moments was in the trailer for the Schwarzenegger vs. The Devil movie End of Days. The year was 1999, and the numbers flipped upside-down to reveal "666." Mind? Blown.) There was a sense that the impending doom was entirely out of our control, which fits with a series of disaster movies about asteroids and volcanoes and hell freezing over.
But there is nothing even a little bit real about Volcano, a movie that fudges everything from the geologic composition of Los Angeles to how volcanoes work. I was particularly bummed to find out that lava bombs, though an actual phenomenon, aren't anywhere near as awesome and malevolent as they are in the movie. Dante's Peak was the volcano flick grounded in reality (at least a little), but Volcano was clearly the more exciting choice. It's also a surprisingly great representation of Los Angeles. How fitting that the city is best immortalized in a disaster film?
To give Volcano an air of legitimacy, the movies pairs up the scientist (Heche) with Office of Emergency Management employee Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones). Together they offer a mess of helpful exposition about volcanoes and city planning, delivered with enough gravitas to keep us on the edge of our seats. And yeah, I view the film with a little more skepticism now that I'm an adult, but I'll admit the scenes of Los Angeles in flames still stir some emotions. Namely, is destroying the mall really necessary for the greater good? I just hope they evacuated the puppies from the pet store first.
One of the things I love most about Volcano is the way its final message has nothing to do with ecology or anything you might expect from a film about a natural disaster. Many films in the genre close with some vague warning to not fuck with Mother Nature — or maybe, if they're even a little environmentally conscious-to stop and smell the climate change. Instead, Volcano offers an appreciated but completely incongruous message of racial equality. In lava's eyes, we are all the same.
I guess it makes some sort of sense, in that Volcano is a movie about Los Angeles, a city renowned for being a melting pot of diverse cultures. The film examines the division of class, and proudly shows the well-off inhabitants helping out the minorities on the other side of town. We can share the fire department! And in the movie's silliest moment, a lost little boy says he can't find his mother, because — covered in ash — we are all the same color. This blockbuster just got deep.
I'm reminded of wise words by former America's Next Top Model contestant and amateur political pundit Adrianne Curry, who once wrote a tirade against Black History Month on her MySpace blog. "I hope one day aliens land and try to kill us," she concluded. "Maybe THEN we would realize that WE are ONE." Aliens, volcanoes, swarms of killer bees. It doesn't really matter, as long as we have to band together against a common enemy. Isn't that what disaster movies are really all about?
One final note: I've mostly given up hope for Volcano 2, but don't forget that Mount Wilshire is still an active volcano. And really, what else is Anne Heche doing?