Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 25, 2018


Occasionally, Hollywood becomes obsessed with one idea. It's why, a couple of years ago, there were competing revisionist takes on “Peter Pan.” Or ten thousand Houdini projects in development simultaneously. Usually, only one of these projects makes it into active production, preventing competing movies with similar ideas. However, that's not always the case. In 1997, following the rebirth of interest in disaster movies, two separate blockbusters about volcanoes hit theaters within a few months of each other. Universal would release “Dante's Peak” in February while Fox would release “Volcano” in April. The earlier film would perform better at the box office and earn slightly better reviews. However, “Volcano” has gained a reputation as a campy classic in the years since.

Office of Emergency Management employee Mike Roark has a demanding job. His rebellious teenage daughter, Kelly, sure knows it. After a minor earthquake, he makes a startling discovery: Seven utility workers dead outside MacArthur Park. Geologist Dr. Amy Barnes suspects the worst. An active volcano may be brewing underneath Los Angeles. She's right, naturally. Soon, lava begins to burst from the La Brea Tar Pits. Molten hot magma flows through L.A., massive balls of explosive rock raining from the sky. In the crisis, Roark and Barnes work together to save as many lives as possible, including his daughter.

Ultimately, “Dante's Peak” and “Volcano” have very different approaches to their volcanic subjects. Roger Donaldson's movie was set in the country. It was also a mostly serious affair. Director Mick Jackson, previously of “The Bodyguard,” sets his movie in the very urban streets of Los Angeles. Moreover, his approach is far campier. “Volcano” is full of many ridiculous scenes. While “Dante's Peak” played fast and loose with the law of convection, “Volcano” ignores it outright. There's a hysterical scene of a rescuer worker melting knee-deep into lava as he tosses a metro driver to safety. Characters dangle above lava by a few feet, maybe steaming slightly. In the movie's funniest scene, a little dog easily outruns the lava flow. There's a lot of humor in “Volcano,” sarcastic dialogue and goofy characters, suggesting that its jokey atmosphere is very intentional.

The intent behind the two film's scenes of destruction also couldn't be more different. “Dante's Peak” attempted to mine serious thrills from its scenes of lava destroying a small town. “Volcano” destroys L.A. with almost a sense of glee. The film delights in reducing one of America's most famous city to molten slag. Among the first landmarks destroyed is Angelyne's billboard. Lots of people are burned in “Volcano” but the movie doesn't seem to treat the injuries very seriously. Many people shrugged off their burns. Those who are actually killed, by the falling chunks of molten lava or rivers of lava, are usually unnamed extras. “Volcano” is violent, full of explosions and destruction, but it's a very distinct type of “fun” movie violence.

Hilariously, for a movie this knowingly ridiculous, “Volcano” also attempts to express some weightier themes. During the destruction of Los Angeles, there are some minor mentions of looting. Instead of focusing on this, the movie pays more attention to people working together to survive. “Volcano” doesn't depict its situation as hopeless. Instead, the movie's heroes put their heads together to quickly think of solutions to the problem. This scenes of unity is eventually spun into a message about prejudice. There's a racist cop among the law-keepers, who attempts to arrest a random guy for the crime of being black. Later, in an incredibly heavy-handed scene, a little boy points out that everyone looks the same when covered in volcanic ash. It's ridiculously hammy, this thematic concern of people putting aside all their differences in a time of need, and adds to the movie's campy atmosphere.

The cast understands how tongue-in-cheek the film is supposed to be. Tommy Lee Jones is the perfect leading man for this film. His righteous sense of frustration and straight-faced reaction to anything crazy makes him ideal for this part. Jones' Miles is ready with a quib even in the middle of an emergency. Anne Hache is more than willing to play along, bouncing off of Jones' dry sarcasm extremely well. Don Cheadle is more blatant comic relief, as the guy responsible for informing Tommy's boss of every crazy thing he does. The cast is rounded out with Keith David and John Corbett, in mostly thankless roles as a good cop and an asshole land developer.

Approach can make a big difference. “Dante's Peak” went for seriousness but was still a schlocky disaster movie at heart. “Volcano” is a schlock, knows its schlock, and embraces its schlockiness. The latter is much more enjoyable. We're all here to see shit blow up. Let's dismiss with the pretensions, shall we? “Volcano” gets shown on TV on lazy weekends frequently, which is the ideal way to watch it. Turn off your brain and bask in a movie that dares to ask who would win in a fight: A million tons of lava or Tommy Lee Jones' scowl? [7/10]

[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

1 comment:

Monty Park said...

Volcano is much in the same spirit as Demolition Man, written after the LA Riots in the outsider belief that they were the beginning of something rather than the end. If you're from Los Angeles, it's also a pretty transparent propaganda film for the city of Beverly Hills, which has been trying to stop transit construction for the last 50 years. At the time, the city was arguing that criminals would use the train as a getaway vehicle. Their latest front, which they lost, was that the land would cave in above the tunnel.

So it's not racist in a very Puzzle Place sort of way, but it's a banner for local NIMBY elitism. And hey, there aren't many cities where you could put that in a major motion picture.