Tuesday 29 March 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad - Volcano

Los Angeles is a fascinating place. Most of the turbulence that afflicts the city is social - gang violence, racial tension, pro-footballers murdering their wives and getting away with it, etc. - but the potential for far a more elemental catastrophe lurks under every crib, pimp wagon or Ben Affleck's house. The San Andreas fault is responsible, the meeting of the Pacific and North American continental tectonic plates. It makes coastal California ripe earthquake territory and when they strike, they tend to be the sort of earthquakes that do more than rearrange your gnomes.

Of course, Los Angeles is also the home to the American film industry and there is nothing Hollywood enjoys more than occasionally reminding itself that it could at any moment be naught but a smoking crater in the ground, just like Kevin Smith's house. It's all part of that particular deal with the devil that movie stars make with their conscience as the man arrives with the next lorry load of money.

Volcano was released in 1997, part of the brief pre-millennium disaster film renaissance which also saw us clenching our buttocks through Dante's Peak, Twister, Armageddon and Deep Impact. Also notable to anyone who might perhaps be endlessly watching disaster films for no real reason is that the director was Mick Jackson, the Briton who made Threads. Fortunately, Volcano is nowhere near as brutal. Although I don't live in Los Angeles, so maybe it is. The fact that John Travolta potentially considers Volcano to be more frightening than Threads is the take home portion from this paragraph.

Anyway, the earthquake that I had been warning everybody could happen in Los Angeles happens. Our hero, Mike Roark of the city's Emergency Management Committee, puts aside his much-needed family holiday to make sure nothing dreadful has happened: one of the Os in the Hollywood sign may have fallen over, for instance, or Warren Beatty's toilet might be leaking. His decision has long-reaching consequences for some of the city engineering workers, who are cooked to death while inspecting a storm drain. This is an unlikely thing to happen, but Roark takes it in his stride. Roark is an easy man to have sympathy towards. He's middle-aged and craggly, gruff and curt yet possessed of an undeniable twinkly oaky Southern charm. He is a bit like Tommy Lee Jones, so the film's casting director secured something of a coup when they acquired the services of Tommy Lee Jones to essay the role.

Tommy Lee Jones in Volcano (1997)

The itch in Roark's knickers is Dr. Amy Barnes, a geologist. Being a geologist is comfortably one of the most genuinely perilous jobs that one can have while still being excruciatingly boring conversation at a dinner party, a dichotomy which tends to make them peculiarly strident people. Barnes is convinced that the earthquake has caused the formation of a volcano right under the centre of the city. Roark is sympathetic to these concerns, but he can't just start throwing tax payers' money around without evidence. Evidence that Barnes, to her own frustration and no doubt that of the people who have to talk to her at her friends' dinner parties, is unable to gather.

Fortunately, Barnes has a key ally in her quest: Mother Nature. The volcano that she had been predicting to everyone could volcano erupts right under the La Brea tar pits, causing hundreds of dollars worth of damage to the fibreglass mammoths and also pumping boiling lava all over the place. Wilshire Boulevard, traditionally given over to being the main arterial road for the largest city in California, becomes a regular shit show of burning vehicles, stuck underground trains and fifth degree burns. It's a lawsuit waiting to happen. To her credit, Dr. Barnes continues to work for the good of the Angelenos, where most of us would take to the highest vantage point immediately available and look smug.

There are two ways that this sort of film can go: they either deal with a pre-existing adversarial relationship being reconciled in the crucible of extreme circumstance, or the nascent union between two people being thrown together by events. Volcano is the latter and if the sex is as impressive as Roark and Barnes' teamwork, there may yet be further earth tremors in southern California. Using carefully placed detonations of explosive devices, they manage to channel the lava flow through the city's network of subterranean tunnels and into the Pacific Ocean where it would presumably solidify and form a place even drier, hotter and more exclusive than Los Angeles itself, much to the chagrin of the Hollywood elite.

I don't know enough about volcanology to know whether any of this exotic bill of fayre is likely or even possible, but I know enough about disaster films to say that this is a perfectly serviceable one. It ticks all of the traditional generic boxes - relationships are explored and developed, people are roasted to a crisp and the special effects department get to just go nuts - as well as retaining its own personal charm. Volcano gets SIX out of ten Disaster Points.

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