The expected mayhem
Mick Jackson
Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gaby Hoffmann, Don Cheadle
The Setup: 
Volcano starts erupting right in the middle of Los Angeles.

I don’t know why I became interested in seeing this again. I had seen it at the theater when it was out. It seemed better then. But, like one of those familiar things you do just because you’ve done them before, there it was, in my DVD player.

The movie begins with a title that tells us that in the case of emergency, the head of emergency services can take control over the city. This never really becomes an issue in the film and is never really discussed and one is mystified why this whole thing is here in the first place. Then the movie tries to establish this whole L.A. populus up top while lava flows dangerously underneath. I suspect this is because nothing is really going to happen in this movie until about 40 minutes in. Then during the credits we find we have a rather all-star supporting cast with Don Cheadle, Keith David and John Corbett. As well as Anne Heche before she wandered on drugs in the desert, and Tommy Lee Jones before he decided he was just sick of this kind of shit.

So while the movie is trying to generate all this ensemble “hard-working people of LA” thing, three utility workers get burned to death underground. Then we introduce Tommy Lee Jones as Mike, who is in charge of emergency management and is supposed to be super dedicated or something. He’s on the case when Seismologist [or whatever] Anne Heche as Amy shows up, a trifle too brassy from the start. The movie tries to build this antagonism between them, but it’s obviously just so they can come to respect each other later. Jones also has this daughter from his failed marriage, who he drops over at a friend’s house. Then Amy and her friend who MAY NOT be lesbian despite her teen-boy haircut and John Lennon glasses go down in the tunnel and oops, the possibly-not lesbian ends up a charred cinder. That’s how Amy knows something serious is going on. That and that by the time she gets back to the surface there’s lava coming out of the LaBrea tar pits.

So Mike is driving his bratty daughter--somewhere, I forgot--when lava starts erupting, rock bombs are being shot into the air, and you are thinking ‘Gee, special effects wheren’t really that great not that long ago in 1997.’ Oh, and by the way, in here we have the first of two sequences that show us that if a bank of windows explodes, hurling shards of glass toward unprotected humans at high speed, it is really NO CAUSE FOR ALARM. It’ll just bounce harmlessly off! Thanks, razor-sharp shards of rapidly-propelled glass!

By now it’s apparent why the first half was so much dull build-up: because once the volcano erupts it’s all action, action, action. There are near escapes and ingenious ideas and can-do attitude and daughter-danger and heroic sacrifices. And it all does indeed pass time.

One theme that emerges is American can-do attitude. There are several instances where this person wants to give up or accept a large number of fatalities, but Mike simply won’t accept defeat! He is seen often cutting people down when they voice a defeatist attitude and saying that they must, MUST think of some way to go on. And they do! And it works! I love you, America! This idiotic movie about a volcano in Los Angeles made me see that!

The other streak of serious social criticism that we could all take a Very Important Lesson from concerns, you guessed it: RACISM. You see, a young African-American male comes over from his neighborhood and demands that firefighters divert from trying to channel the lava safely away from downtown and come save his neighborhood. The fact that they don’t is surely evidence that they don’t care about saving it, because it is a black neighborhood. He makes his request to the white firefighter with cropped blond hair and mustache--his Aryan looks MEAN he is racist--who won’t divert the effort and is judged by others to be unduly harsh to the African-American gentleman, especially when the black guy is handcuffed for being too unruly! But by the end the white guy relents and releases the black guy, and then the black guy comes and helps them move some big thing they couldn’t have moved without him. At this point a flashing message scrolls across the bottom of the screen, reading: WE CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS WHEN WE WORK TOGETHER. Then, once the crisis is averted, the white guy gives priority to saving the black guy’s neighborhood, and everyone feels good, and there are shots of people looking in wonderment at how the white firefighter overcame his racism [and didn’t stand blithely by and let this guy’s neighborhood be incinerated--thanks! What a guy!]. The kicker comes at the final moment of the film, when we see everyone working together, and a child observes that, now that everyone is covered in gray ash, we ALL LOOK THE SAME. You see, once we’re all gray and give up our cultural differences and become completely homogenized, we can live in peace! And you know--it takes the innocence of a child to show us the way.

I have no problem with the intent of these messages, I have a problem with their simplicity. I don’t think simplistic, pat answers to serious and complex issues like racism really help anyone, and I don’t think simplistic, pat answers coming from a moronic attempted blockbuster about a volcano in Los Angeles really help anyone, either. Why is it seen as necessary to shoehorn in some social message to our moronic action blockbusters anyway? Why can’t it just be about a volcano? Surely because someone somewhere felt a little guilty about making a straightforward action movie and thought you could add some significance by taping on a completely unrelated social message? But if the whole thing is handled in such a banal way that its only effect will be to make people roll their eyes--and cast anti-racist material as something unpleasant that one must sit through--is that really a help?

After a few more social messages [WHY in the WORLD would the sensitive Asian nurse risk her safety for STRANGERS? ...asks the evil rich white yuppie] and some more perfectly harmless exploding shards of glass against bare skin, it’s all over. The only thing we can be thankful for is that it is relatively low-key about the required Jones-Heche romance.

If you rent this movie I think you know what you’re in for, and it is pretty much exactly that. It does, however, seem a little dated now. Not just the film [with its sometimes shockingly poor effects], but this very TYPE of film. It just seems a little naive and straightforward now, definitely looking back toward the films of the 80s, rather than facing forward. But if you want to see the expected mayhem of a volcano erupting in a major city, you will see the expected mayhem.

Should you watch it: 

There’s really no reason in the world to, but it won’t kill you if you do.