Mt. Wilshire At 20: The Anniversary of Volcano

After Twister was a hit, two studios raced to make a volcano movie. Visual effects were finally there to portray a natural disaster Irwin Allen couldn’t have. Dante’s Peak was the volcano movie you’d expect them to make. A volcano erupts and people run from lava. It was good and the acid lake was cool, but Volcano took it so much further.

Volcano may have been an early film that let me to believe that movies should make less sense, and that “because it’s awesome” takes precedence over any other logic. Making sense is the death of creativity and Volcano didn’t let scientific fact prevent it from the most awesome idea: What if city folks did have to run from a volcano? And what if no-nonsense Tommy Lee Jones was there to get in the lava’s face and stop it?

I saw Volcano years before I moved to LA. Now that I’ve lived here 18 years, I don’t recognize the L.A. In this movie. It’s fun to see La Cienega when the Beverly Center was thriving. The Hard Rock Cafe has since moved to a different tourist trap. The Angelyne billboard on Wilshire is a downright classic. The fireball blowing her face off has extra meaning now that I’ve driven past her real billboards. Their geography also emphasized “awesome” over logical traffic patterns. They diverted the flow of lava to where it would create the best set pieces.

Volcano actually bucked the standard disaster movie formula, which is the heroes have to escape whatever disaster befell them, whether a capsized boat, a skyscraper on fire or an airplane sinking into the ocean. Even San Andreas was about escaping the flooding and crumbling caused by the earthquake. Volcano was really ahead of its time and time still hasn’t caught up. In Volcano they thought of ways to stop the lava. They weren’t going to give up L.A.  You don’t cast Tommy Lee Jones as the chief of emergency services and ask him to run. He dismisses that suggestion without any further discussion! So they barricaded and diverted the lava, trapped it and froze it. These are active protagonists. It’s possible that lava could’ve burned through concrete roadblocks but Neil DeGrasse Tyson wasn’t on Twitter in 1997 so we’ll never know.

It sure is nice to see the disaster portrayed by practical effects. This was probably the last time it would even be attempted with miniatures and pyrotechnics. It looks like real fireballs were hurled at targets rigged to explode. Lava sprays look overplayed optically which feels more tangible than CGI. There were digital effects too but seeing ash rain down throughout the night, pushing real cars and physical concrete blocks against an orange glow really makes you feel the heat. The pace escalates intensely if you’re just into the thrill ride, but there’s much more to Volcano than that.

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Best of all, it was a metaphor for racism. Disaster movies were always about disparate people forced to work together. Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno and the Airport movies set up characters with beefs and rivalries so they’d have to come together in a crisis. Even Independence Day got that right (Twister was noticeably missing this conflict. The rival storm chaser didn’t even share scenes with the heroes.) Volcano had territorial city departments, kids, and grownups, elite businessmen vs. everymen and everywomen on the streets. It was also about the post-Rodney King racial tensions in the city. I bet Don Cheadle got the idea for Crash from being in Volcano.

The rescue workers still neglected the African-American neighborhood. The elite businessman (John Corbett) wants his doctor girlfriend (Jacqueline Kim) to stop treating “those people” because he provides for her. The hostile white cops are still relevant today, unfortunately. Does it really have to take a frigging volcano to make racist cops realize black lives matter?

The lava was a metaphor for racism. Yes, it was awesome to see literal lava flow through the streets and melt cars and trains, but it was really the city’s broiling intolerance that threatened to destroy it from the inside. When the city triumphed over the volcano, they also triumphed over racism. The stifled volcano rained ash over the city covering black, white, Asian and every people with ash so they all looked the same. An innocent child observes that when everyone is covered in grey dust. Physical differences no longer existed. Perhaps we need Volcano more than ever today. I think the lava would be sad to discover there is still racism 20 years after it taught Los Angeles a lesson.

I also love that it ends with the newly dubbed “Mt. Wilshire” still active. Obviously, it’s setup for a sequel that would never be made (there’s still time!) but even as a standalone that makes it an effectively Sisyphusian tale. You may have lived to fight another day but you can’t stop nature. This is the new normal. Volcano is day one. It’s going to keep happening but at least Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche will be there to fight back.

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