Here’s the thing about Volcano: It’s not really a good movie. It is by no stretch of the imagination a film that offers anything more than an hour and 44 minutes of mildly entertaining diversion. So don’t go thinking I’m writing about it because I think it’s secretly a groundbreaking epic film on par with classics like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. This is not a film for the ages. This is a film that you watch to avoid writing a term paper.
But it’s important to note that Volcano attempts two things: It attempts to cinematically destroy Los Angeles in a meaningful and entertaining way, and it attempts to explore the racial landscape of the second largest (and most diverse) city in the United States in a meaningful and entertaining way. In the intervening years, other movies have tried these things as well, most notably 2012 (2009) and Crash (2005) While both of these films more or less stink like John McCain’s anal musk glands, what makes them truly stand out as losers is the fact that a movie like Volcano so soundly thrashes them at their narrative goals.
Volcano features Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche (hey, remember Anne Heche?) battling an underground volcanic eruption that flows through the Metro red line, killing transit workers and eventually invading Wilshire Boulevard via the La Brea Tar Pits. In the process it destroys a succession of important LA landmarks, such as MacArthur Park, Museum Row, and veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch.
I saw this movie years before moving to, or even visiting, Los Angeles. So I had very little frame of reference for understanding exactly what was being destroyed, and therefore didn’t really enjoy the movie very much. A big part of this is because Volcano assumes a bit of foreknowledge on the part of the viewer, but mostly it’s because LA is really the only thing in the movie worth caring about.
Once I moved to LA, my appreciation for Volcano rose dramatically. Holy shit! The lava is heading for La Cienega! Oh crap! It’s threatening Cedars Sinai! What has become of the Miracle Mile? What news of the Wiltern? Will it destroy the Beverly Center? Did the Beverly Center even exist in 1997? How close did I come to being forced to shop at the Old Navy in Glendale? Before moving to LA, I cared about none of these things, lacking a frame of reference.
And when I saw 2012 in the theater last year (shut up, I was drunk), I saw LA destroyed much more completely and efficiently, as a massive off-the-charts earthquake dumped us all into the sea. But it was hard to care about this LA, which was really nothing more than the backdrop to an action sequence. It could be any city with a donut shop that looks like a giant donut. The LA in Volcano is a place where people actually live and work and enjoy themselves. The LA in 2012 is a place where, I dunno, John Cusack drives a taxi? A limo? I never really cared.
Volcano also features an ongoing subplot about a white cop who wrongfully arrests an outspoken black kid; it doesn’t work as an indictment of the LAPD, since the cop’s fellow officers compel him to let the kid go when the lava flow gets too intense, but it does offer some ham-handed commentary on black-guy-versus-white-guy relations in the pre-Obama USA. And at the end, there’s a moment where a little boy notes that he can’t tell anyone’s race because everyone is covered in soot. The message: We’re all the same color when you dump 150 million tons of volcanic ash on us.
Which, you’ve got to admit, is more mature than the message in Crash. As The ‘Queg pointed out last week, Paul Haggis’s 2005 Oscar opus attempts to fight racism by introducing a sneakier and more insidious kind of racism. Volcano is the better film because its message on race is, if flawed, simple and unambitious. Whereas Crash attempts to be a comprehensive treatise on race — and thus fails when the fingerprints of white privilege become apparent — Volcano knows it’s not going to be anything more than a fortune cookie.
Also, Volcano has lava bombs, which frankly can improve nearly any schmaltzy movie about race. Imagine how much better Ghosts of Mississippi would have been if Volkswagen-sized chunks of semicooled magma had been exploding around the courthouse while Alec Baldwin was making his opening arguments. Shit, man, I’m gonna write that movie right now.
In the end, the best you can really do with Volcano is make a drinking game out of it. Do a shot every time someone mentions a major traffic artery. Do another shot every time Tommy Lee Jones frowns. Or just drink continuously every time there’s lava on the screen. You’ll thank yourself later.