Volcano (review)

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Kill the Media


Now, I don’t mean that in the figurative sense, of course. I’m not advocating mass murder of television journalists. But bear with me for a moment.

I think we all know the storyline of Volcano (starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche): Lava erupts out of the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, taking out a fair-size chuck of the city before being heroically diverted into the ocean by brave lady vulcanologist (Heche) and crotchety but lovable emergency-services guy (Jones). It’s your basic disaster-movie scenario: tragedy strikes, an adorable dog is placed in danger’s path and rescues itself at the last moment, humanity triumphs over the awesome powers of nature, blah blah blah.
Several factors elevate Volcano from the merely boring to the actively annoying. One is the steady reliance on incredible coincidence in an attempt to create drama and suspense. First, Jones sends all casualties — including his teenage daughter — from the scene of the eruption to a hospital way across town. Then the lava starts flowing directly at the hospital — horrors! Jones develops a drastic plan to divert the lava that involves dynamiting a skyscraper — a building into which the daughter improbably wanders at the critical moment. (Needless to say, the daughter survives tons of steel and concrete crashing down on her without a scratch.)

Then there is the oh-so-precious undercurrent of “Can’t we all just get along?” running through the movie. It’s a wonderful sentiment, and one the world could do a lot to foster, but the theme is way too heavy-handed here. When a cute, tow-headed little boy innocently comments that the ash falling from the sky has made everyone the same color, I wanted to drag that videocassette out into the yard and put it out of my misery. Imagine, all those people working to end racism have had it wrong all this time: Just paint everybody gray, and our troubles are over.

But the most grating thing about this movie is television. Not a thing happens in Volcano that isn’t commented on by tv news. Lava advances down the boulevard — three reporters in voice-over tell us that lava is advancing. A fire truck explodes — a news report announces that a fire truck has exploded. A tremor rattles the city — sure enough, there are those anchors, telling us that an earthquake has occurred.

Using the news media to comment on and advance the plot is a fine device, if used sparingly. Contact used CNN to good effect, and I’ll never forget the little tagline that Sky News used in Independence Day for the big story: “Alien Fleet Arrives.” That bald summation kinda gives me the chills.

But in Volcano, this technique was ill-used and jarring. If the filmmakers were trying to make a point about the ubiquity of the media, they should have found a more pointed way of doing it.

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