One day, about a year ago, Jerome D. Armstrong, a screenwriter, was sitting at his computer and wrote a screenplay about a volcano erupting out of the La Brea Tar Pits. Not long after, following a flurry of bidding, Fox 2000 (a division of Twentieth Century Fox) bought the script and began production, hoping to beat "Dante's Peak" to the multiplex. Alas, DP won, but it was worth the wait.
"Volcano" delivers the thrills expected from a disaster movie, with a budget of $70 million, and a production that saw the painstaking recreation of a seventeen acre stretch of downtown L.A. set up in a factory, as well as the closing of several busy L.A. thoroughfares for a month. It has all the standard elements of your typical disaster fare. Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) is the head of Los Angeles' Emergency Operations Center and is your typical take-charge manager who is not satisfied to merely delegate and sit on the sidelines-- he must do everything himself (definitely not a manager from Dilbert-land). Gaby Hoffman is his daughter, the product of Roark's failed marriage-- and he happens to have custody of her the week the volcano appears. Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) is the scientist that no one will listen to, except of course, the protagonist, until of course, the sudden I-told-you-so-moment-of-reckoning that sends everything to hell. Emmit Reese (Don Cheadle) is Roark's second-in-command back at the station and is the voice on the radio. The rest of the cast is composed of various Angelinos slice-o'-life caricatures: the tireless doctor that puts the lives of her patients above her own personal safety, her jerk husband who only cares about saving his own hide, a racist White cop who learns tolerance, a Black gang member who learns that not all LAPD officers are Mark Fuhrman, the chain-smoking Metro Rail chairman that won't let anything stop 'his' trains from running on schedule, the little boy that wanders into the darndest places, etc. Father and daughter get separated, manager falls in love with scientist, daughter is placed in great peril, blah blah blah... nothing new here.
The scenes of wholesale destruction are something to be marveled, and the digital soundtrack of the theater I saw it at ensured that every explosion, shattering window, scream, and rumble was resonant. Having been to Los Angeles and strolled down Wilshire Boulevard two years ago, it was certainly a sight to see the relentless lava devour the local landmarks that I remember, the flying lava bombs, and the collapsing buildings on the big screen.
According to director Mick Jackson, his aim was to shoot "Volcano" like a documentary, putting the viewer in the thick of the action, and not merely having a "privileged God's-eye view of the action", and this is apparent from the standout narrative structure of the movie, which seems to have been made with the couch potato in mind (those of you who sat glued to the TV during the L.A. riots or the O.J. Simpson freeway chase know who you are). The television news media is in abundance in this movie, with video bites providing plot information and comic relief at a furious pace as channels are surfed. A rapid succession of images cut between reporters at the scene giving reports by cellular phone or by camera, and reporters in the newsroom. The EOC control room is tuned to every television news program for information gathering. It's reminiscent of that old M*A*S*H episode that was told from the point-of-view of a visiting news crew.
Of course, because it is a disaster movie, there are momentary lapses into cheesy dialogue, contrived situations, and technical inaccuracies, that are almost too numerous to mention. As ash falls like snow from the initial eruption, blanketing the city in gray, helicopters are flying about, dropping water and shooting news footage-- unfortunately, if the science of "Dante's Peak" is to believed, the turbines of would become clogged from the ash in the air and the choppers should crash. Glass windows on a high-rise shatter and fall onto the people without causing any scratches. There are numerous slo-mo scenes of people managing to outrun high-velocity phenomena, such as explosions, rapidly-expanding steam, and collapsing buildings. When Roark asks his daughter what she should do in the event of an earthquake, she replies, "stand in a doorframe, tuck your head between your legs, and kiss your ass good-bye" (ugh, I've heard that in at least two other disaster movies). At the end of the movie, when everyone's face is covered by ash, giving them all a gray complexion, whether White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian, a boy points to them and says "they all look the same" (see Rodney, we CAN all get along!).
But of course, this is first and foremost a disaster movie, and not something that's going to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. If you watched "Independence Day" to 'watch stuff get blowed up real good', you'll definitely get your money's worth out of "Volcano". And if you have already seen "Dante's Peak", see "Volcano" anyways. Definitely E-ticket.