In Volcano, great gobs of lava come spewing out of the earth and rolling down the boulevards of Los Angeles. The stuff is bright yellow orange, with a shifting black crust on top, and though you wouldn't want to touch it, it doesn't actually move very fast. A congealed river of liquid rock, it oozes down the road with sticky deliberation, like an angry batch of pancake batter. People leap over it from the tops of cars, and Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, as flirtatiously embattled crisis managers, are swung around on a fire truck's ladder, legs dangling above a field of molten goo. Finally, one man doesn't leap far enough: He plunges into the lava and goes down, melting like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Volcano is cheese, all right, but it's tangy cheese. I'm not sure I've ever seen a disaster movie in which special effects this realistic and accomplished were put to the service of a premise this outlandish. An ocean liner, after all, can sink (or turn upside down), a skyscraper can catch fire, and Los Angeles could, conceivably, be destroyed by the mother of all quakes. On the other hand, the notion of L.A. consumed by geysers of lava sounds about as likely as the cloning of dinosaur DNA. The poker-faced preposterousness of Volcano is exactly what's fun about it. The film features plenty of important-sounding flimflam about earthquake epicenters and tectonic shifts. But every time there was a shot of that glowing river of lava, I found myself thinking back to The Blob, the 1958 camp classic about a pile of rampaging gelatinous ick. Volcano is The Blob redone with geotechnological ''realism.''
The new wave of disaster movies has already provoked the usual media musings on what our collective appetite for vicarious catastrophe is all about. A venting of premillennial dread? A fantasy projection of the cataclysms (Oklahoma City, etc.) that now pepper the news with disturbing regularity? An expression of sheer numbness? (After a steady diet of movies as bombastically explosive as The Rock, it's understandable that audiences would want to move on to the spectacle of sheer devastation.) The most telling aspect of the disaster films of the '90s, though, may simply be that they're pop-culture replays, grand-scale exercises in '70s nostalgia. The fundamental mediocrity of Independence Day was that it was such a blatant, jokey recycling of previous pop extravaganzas the schlock cross-section-of-America ensemble drama of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure mixed with the special-effects visions of Close Encounters and Star Wars.
Volcano, with its cheeky use of L.A. as the apocalyptic cliff's edge of America, is, in essence, a replay of Earthquake. What makes the film oxymoronically amusing is that even as we're meant to be tingled by anxiety and horror at the image of a city deluged with yellow-hot spew, there's something comforting in the very familiarity of the destruction. The characters run around drenched in volcanic ash, but hardly anyone gets killed in Volcano. After the lava burns through a few department stores (there's a great shot of singed bride and groom dummies), it settles into a slow crawl down Wilshire Boulevard, and the drama becomes, How can it be controlled, dammed up, contained? Jones and his team create a cul-de-sac out of stacked concrete highway dividers, trapping the lava and dousing it with water; it's a scene to delight the child sand-castle architect in us all. Volcano is The End of Los Angeles staged as an outrageous yet oddly manageable disaster apocalypse made as cozy as a Nick at Nite rerun.
I had a pretty good time at Volcano. The reason I didn't have a better time is that the characters aren't just schlocky, they're boring. The director, Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard), crosscuts around the city a subway construction site, a natural-disaster patrol center, divorced dad Jones trying to save his bratty teen daughter and for a while we seem to be watching the interpolated pilots of four high-strung dramatic television series. Jackson effectively sets up news reporters as objects of ridicule (they soak up our desire to giggle at the proceedings), but the rest of the film too feels like a packaged newscast. Volcano is jittery in a clinical, self-important way. Actors as vivid as Don Cheadle, who plays Jones' second in command, have almost no space to parade their personalities. A subplot about symbolic racial discord, which turns into symbolic racial harmony, is so trite it's pure camp. Anne Heche, with her naughty eyes and striking coloring (even her skin looks blond), attempts to engage in feisty sparring with Jones, but the two are reduced to pelting each other with techno-jargon. There's only one real character in Volcano, and that's that rich, creamy, photogenic ooze of lava. When it's finally directed back to the depths from whence it came, L.A. looks like a much duller place. B-