July 24, 2016

VOLCANO (1997) and the Great Lava Game

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gaby Hoffman, Don Cheadle, Jacqueline Kim, Keith David, John Corbett, John Carroll Lynch. Directed by Mick Jackson. (1997, 104 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON
When you’re a kid, everything is out to get you...and you specifically. Spiders, bees, the neighbor’s German Shepherd and the tentacled thing lurking under the bed are simply waiting for the perfect moment to strike. And that’s just in your own backyard. Consider the horrors that await when you stray too far from the relative safety of home, such as quicksand, man-eating sea critters, tornadoes and that hellish green glow between the steps of an escalator, all of which threaten to suck children away to an agonizing death.

Then, of course, there’s lava.

For me, lava was especially horrifying, right up there with spiders. I was totally freaked out by that bubbling goo. The thought of a liquid hot enough to melt anything it touches was simply too fucking awful to wrap my undeveloped brain around. Surely, death by lava was the worst death of all. I wasn’t alone in that sentiment, either. As kids, we’ve all engaged in some variation of the Lava Game (which actually has its own Wikipedia page), jumping from one piece of furniture to the next to avoid hitting the floor. Such a game wouldn’t exist if, on a primal level, lava didn’t scare the shit out of us.

I suppose most of my irrational childhood fears germinated from movies and TV, where untimely demise always carries more dramatic heft than passing peacefully in your sleep at the age of 90. At the same time, I’ve always held a morbid fascination for the things I feared, especially since Hollywood tends to play fast & loose with scientific accuracy in order to up the terror factor. Most spider bites are not only survivable, but seldom much worse than bee strings. Spiders don’t particularly enjoy our company, either, preferring to avoid us if at-all possible. Even tarantulas, the most horrifying eight-legged beasties of all, spend most of their lives sleeping.

But in movies, with the possible exception of Charlotte’s Web, not only are all spiders deadly, they’re aggressive, vicious, hunt in packs and have a distinct taste for human blood. When you’re a kid, no rational argument to the contrary can convince you otherwise. Still, I’ve always loved movies about arrant arachnids because they terrify me. Even the worst ones (such as 1976’s The Giant Spider Invasion) can stir-up that visceral dread I crave from a horror film.

Lava was equally scary, though I found some comfort in the fact that the closest active volcano to my house was 3,000 miles away (at least until Mt. St. Helens woke up). Since lava wasn’t likely to belch from the sink or scurry up my bedroom wall, all I had to do to avoid being melted alive was never visit Hawaii (which I’ve managed so far, to my wife’s chagrin).

Childhood nightmare fuel...courtesy of Mother Nature. Thanks a lot.

Of course, we all grow older and wiser. Childhood fears take a backseat to more tangible ones, like tax season, your daughter’s first date and that weird noise the car suddenly makes when you start it up in the morning. I’m now the go-to spider slayer when my kids are screaming in their bedrooms, and I’m pretty certain a week in Hawaii can someday be scratched off my wife’s bucket list without killing me (unless the plane goes down or I’m attacked just offshore by a great white...or both).

Still, you’re looking at the one guy who felt a twinge of sympathy pain when the T-1000 met its molten demise in Terminator 2. Even though it’s completely alien to my life experiences (so far), lava has always been scary-ass shit. So of course I went to see 1997’s Volcano the day it opened.

No way was I gonna pass this up. I was raised on disaster movies. They were (and still are) my favorite genre and I gobbled up every celluloid catastrophe Hollywood spewed forth in the 70s, even the bad ones, of which there were plenty. My favorite has always been The Towering Inferno. Even today, it's generally considered the Gone with the Wind of its ilk and the gold standard by which all others are measured. Sure, the film looks a little quaint today, with its corny dialogue, questionable performances, silly subplots and the plethora of sideburns & bell-bottom formalwear. But as an 11 year old in 1974, I was terrified at the thought of plummeting 138 stories while on fire. Not only are you being charbroiled the whole way down, you end up splattering the pavement below like a water balloon...two terrible ways to die rolled up into one, just like being attacked by a great white after your plane goes down (maybe my wife and I won’t visit Hawaii after all).

To my utter joy, disaster movies made a brief comeback in the 90s with such catastrophic creations as Twister, Deep Impact, Independence Day, Dante’s Peak, Daylight and Armageddon. Just like I did as a kid, I saw them all, the good with the bad. Then there was Volcano, arguably one of the dumber ones, but by far the most ominous...for me anyway.

What made Volcano especially enticing was that every trailer and poster promised the same thing...enough lava to make volcanophobes shit their pants. Sure, the similarly-themed Dante’s Peak, released that same year, is considered a smarter, more accurate depiction of a volcanic eruption (most simply explode like Mt. St. Helens). However, I don’t go to disaster movies for their realism, just like I would never pay for a spider film to watch a tarantula sleep. I want the volcano of my nightmares, with lava gushing from its flaming maw to engulf terrified townspeople too stupid to simply run the other way, which Volcano delivers in spades.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Mike Roark, head of the Office of Emergency Management, who’s forced to deal with an earthquake that triggers a massive volcanic eruption in downtown Los Angeles. Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) is also on-hand to provide exposition and explain to Roark what magma is. Speaking of which, we hear a lot of voiceovers of newscasters hilariously describing the ongoing crisis as though they just learned the definitions of ‘volcano’ and ‘lava.’

Volcano takes the Independence Day approach of depicting the destruction of iconic landmarks, while threatening millions of folks unaccustomed to starting their day dodging lava bombs. We’ve seen tiny villages and towns ravaged by eruptions in countless films before, but Volcano is the first one I’m aware of which takes place in one of the world’s biggest cities. Maybe that’s because anybody with rudimentary geological knowledge knows a volcano popping up in L.A. is scientifically impossible, and probably why the Internet Movie Database partially classifies the film as sci-fi.

To call Volcano far-fetched is like declaring the Battle of Normandy an unpleasant weekend. Even the most intellectually challenged of us probably realize you can’t stem the unrelenting flow of millions of tons of molten rock with firefighting equipment and a few well-placed concrete dividers (I can’t even keep water from seeping into my attic, so how’s that gonna work?). Nor would lava have the courtesy of sticking to the main roads. That scene, however, is still more convincing than an initial half-assed attempt at creating romantic chemistry between Roark and Barnes, a subplot wisely dropped and forgotten about.

"No, really...I won an Oscar once."

Still, in classic disaster movie tradition, Volcano boasts a couple other silly subplots, and they are doozies. First, we have Roark’s flippant, eye-rolling teenage daughter, Kelly (Gaby Hoffman), who’s surly and rude during the first act, becomes a helpless, quivering idiot when disaster strikes, only to inexplicably turn heroic during the climax (though still dumb enough to require rescue by Dad). Sure, the annoying-child-whose-death-you’re-silently-praying-for has been a disaster film staple for decades, but to make that character both snotty and dumb is particularly impressive.

Then there’s the phenomenally stupid white cop whose barely-contained racism has him more concerned with keeping a young black man in custody (guilty of voicing an opinion) than the relentless tide of lava rolling up Wilshire Blvd. Later, this cop finally releases his prisoner, who in-turn starts assisting the police in building a barricade to stop the lava. Afterwards, they give each other a final gaze of new-found mutual respect. This laughably out-of-place message of racial tolerance -  We can all get along if we try!  - is presented with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

But I was able to forgive Volcano’s many shortcomings because lava freaks me out and, more significantly, the film presents the stuff just as I always feared when I was little...a hellish, ravenous monster that almost seems alive. When a lava bomb plops right in front of Kelly and spits a wad of flaming goo on her leg, it’s like the damn thing wanted to see her dead as much as the audience does. I was also on the edge of my seat when Roark & Kelly are trapped atop his SUV, forced to play the Lava Game for real. That goes double for the scene where Roark and Barnes are dangling from a fire truck ladder directly over a molten river, hanging on for dear life until they’re hoisted out of the way. It was suspenseful enough for me to overlook the fact that the heat alone probably would have killed them.

Confirming my worst volcanic fears, though, was the fate of transit official Stan Olber (John Carroll Lynch). The scene takes place in a subway tunnel, where he’s rescuing passengers from a stalled train before the lava reaches it. He gets them all off to safety, save for the engineer, who has passed out from the heat. Meanwhile, the lava has reached the train, which begins to melt. Olber hoists the man on his back and makes the slow, grueling march through fire and dripping steel toward the exit, murmuring The Lord’s Prayer in terror, his shoes slowly melting with each step. By the time he reaches the door, lava has surrounded the train, solid ground at least six feet away. Olber has no choice but to try and jump the distance to safety. What happens next completely unnerved me...

Hollywood nightmare fuel...courtesy of Mick Jackson (you asshole).

Olber does not win the Lava Game. He lands in it feet-first, instantly catching fire as he screams in sheer agony. Worse yet, even though the lava is barely six inches deep, he appears to be sinking...because he’s melting alive. With the last of his strength, Olber manages to throw the engineer clear, all while magma literally eats its way up his disintegrating torso. After what feels like an eternity, his bloodcurdling screams grow silent, though we’re still subjected to his death-frozen expression of bug-eyed shock before he completely sinks into oblivion.

In reality, Olber would likely have died from heat exposure before he even reached the end of the train. Even if he had made it, planting both feet firmly in a lava bed would surely kill him faster than a moth in a bug zapper. But reality provided no comfort as I sat in the theater, cringing, squirming and squeezing my wife’s hand hard enough to break a few blood vessels. That single, horrifying scene encapsulates every nightmare I ever had about volcanoes and lava, which came roaring back from the deep recesses of my childhood memories. Even as I write of this scene, my butt puckers a little.

If I had seen Volcano as a kid, my head would have exploded.

I don’t care how far-fetched it is...that scene in Volcano still ranks high on my list of the most vividly disturbing movie moments. At the same time, it’s my favorite part of the entire film, perhaps because it briefly-but-effectively reverted me back to my childhood self, the kid whose wild imagination had him convinced the world - and everything in it - was out to get him.

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