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Film / Supervolcano

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Supervolcano is a 2005 docudrama film that originally aired on BBC One and the Discovery Channel.

As you might guess from the title, the film revolves around a super volcano in this case, the Yellowstone caldera that lies just underneath Yellowstone National Park. Geologist Rick Lieberman (Michael Riley) and his team of scientists in the park monitor the increasingly worrisome signs of an impending eruption, while pressure mounts from the media and Rick's own brother-in-law (Robert Wisden). When the caldera finally erupts, it proves to be a devastating eruption, and the film then focuses on the federal government's response as well as that of the public to this catastrophe.

This film provides examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: Besides the countless people who die in the eruption off-screen, a lot of the main cast dies as well. Matt and Nancy are killed when the pyroclastic flow catches up to them while Dave gets crushed by a collapsing roof in a hotel.
  • Advancing Wall of Doom: The first vent undergoing a column collapse triggers a massive wave of pyroclastic flows which absolutely obliterate everything they touch and kill Nancy and Matt when they try to flee the scene in their vehicle.
  • Apocalypse How: The eruption itself is a regional disaster, but the volcanic winter scales things up to a global societal disruption.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The movie begins with one made by Rick being discovered. Subverted, as Rick himself is the one who finds it.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Inverted. Dave is the last person to die onscreen. Also averted with Johnson, who survives with Rick and Kenneth.
  • Big Good: Wendy Reiss ends up becoming this as the eruption goes on.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Rick, Jock, Johnson, and Kenneth survive the eruption, and ultimately Rick's suggestion of "Walk to Life" saves 7.3 million people. However, the eruption has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans including most of Rick's team, wreaked havoc on the entire global ecosystem, rendered 20% of the United States uninhabitable, and caused mass famine and a volcanic winter.
  • Chekhov's Volcano: Double Subverted. The Yellowstone Caldera isn't as visible as your average volcano, but it's the setting of most of the first half. The threat it poses is built up for the entire time and the eruption lasts for days on end.
  • Doomed Contrarian: Averted.
    • Joe Foster, who previously told Rick to downplay the threat of an eruption, survives and actually hits the ground running when things start getting bad.
    • Jock was skeptical of the threat posed by Yellowstone until a harmonic tremor (the only surefire warning sign of impending eruption, according to Jock himself) is detected. He's the only one of the team that survives the initial eruption and ashfall due to being injured and boarding a helicopter (reluctantly, as he wanted Nancy to go). Aside from Rick, anyway.
  • Dwindling Party: Rick's group begins to fall to the eruption, one by one. By the end of day 1 only Jock and Rick himself survived.
  • Earthquakes Cause Fissures: The quake near the beginning creates a large crack with chunks of ground falling into it.
  • 11th-Hour Ranger: Johnson appears late in the middle of part 2 of the movie, yet he's essential for establishing communications between Rick and the rescue efforts.
  • Endless Winter: The sulfur gasses expelled by the eruption cause a volcanic winter that lasts for years. One of Jock's interview segments after the fact has him saying that things are starting to get better, but probably won't be back to normal within his lifetime.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Best case scenario is that the eruption will end in a couple of days, but that still leaves zones 1 and 2 inaccessible for 3-4 weeks so any survivors are unlikely. Even then air traffic is extremely dangerous thanks to the ash cloud so rescue and supplies are a major liability. Joe Foster is forced to accept that he can't save everyone and goes with Rick's Walk to Life to save the most people.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Rick and his brother-in-law Kenneth become much closer after their experience surviving the eruption.
  • Foreboding Fleeing Flock: Some birds can be seen fleeing as the eruption begins. Before this, thousands of bison are spotted fleeing from the park by the main characters.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The computer simulation models and its 3D presentation are christened VIRGIL (Virtual Geophysical Imaging Laboratory)
  • Giant Wall of Watery Doom: Early in the film, a precursor earthquake to the eruption causes a landslide that in turn causes a flood that kills nine people.
  • Glory Hound: The reason Maggie Chin is investigating Yellowstone. Matt tries to talk her out of it.
  • Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: Kenneth demonstrates the size of a full-scale Yellowstone eruption by going up the Volcanic Explosivity Index from Mt. St. Helensnote  with proportionately-sized cubes.
  • Holographic Terminal: VIRGIL, the modeling computer they use to look at the magma chamber, uses one to display results.
  • Idiot Ball: Dave completely forgets about the potential for ash piling up on a roof and collapsing it. He dies cursing himself for forgetting about it.note 
  • Intrepid Reporter: Maggie Chin. She gets a "The Reason You Suck" Speech for being reckless by Matt.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Downplayed. Maggie gives up on covering Yellowstone on-site when Matt makes her aware of just how big an eruption would be and instead starts covering the government's response.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Both Ken and Jock repeatedly mention how immensely improbable it would be that an eruption should occur just after humanity happened to develop the knowledge to see it coming, even when they and their colleagues are the only ones present. While it would be a reasonable thing to say to the press, the fact that two experts keep repeating it out loud to each other starts to get a bit Anvilicious.
  • Lurid Tales of Doom: What Rick thinks Kenneth is doing. Turns out Kenneth wasn't too far off, though neither of them had any way of knowing it at the time.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": Once the public finds out about the possibility of an eruption, stores are cleaned out by panicking civilians, and it's not limited to the US. The panic has already spread to the UK by the day after Rick's wife and son get there.
  • Million to One Chance: Stated by Rick in terms of betting odds when Maggie Chin asks.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Joe Foster's decision to downplay the eruption resulted in millions of people trapped in the ashfall assuming they weren't killed outright with Rick among them. Getting them out turns out to be easier said than done.
  • No Antagonist: Joe Foster is the closest thing to an antagonist and the governor follows along with him, but they both act more reasonably when the chips are down.
  • No Man Left Behind: Kenneth suggests waiting for Johnson's comrades to come searching for him for their rescue. Johnson, a member of the Air Force, claims that the No Man Left Behind trope is only invoked by the Army Rangers.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: Jokingly discussed when Kenneth proposes that he and Rick eat Johnson to survive. Johnson smirks and accepts the challenge.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: How Rick sees Kenneth at first, partly because Kenneth's sensationalism has been making Rick's job harder.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Joe Foster, director of Homeland Security, outright asks Rick to lie about the eruption, and when Rick says there's a possibility that the worst case scenario will happen, Joe throws it back in his face by demanding Rick make a statement playing it down. Even when the eruption starts, Joe arrogantly refuses to listen to Rick until there seems to be no hope. However, it's made clear that his choice is in part based on concern that if the full danger's known the resulting panic will ultimately increase the lives lost in the disaster.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • When the anomaly above the magma chamber is revealed to be a magma pocket approaching the surface, again when the plane flies into the ash cloud and again when a second vent opens up as that means it'll chain-react into a caldera-forming eruption.
    • The remainder of the team at the field office have a giant one when they realise that Yellowstone's finally gone off. Even the skeptical Jock realises what's happened and let's out a horrified "This is it, Matt. It's started."
    • Dave let's out a low-key one before the motel ceiling collapses and crushes him.
    • Wendy occasionally gets this when the situation escalates, from learning that Rick's plane is headed directly into the ash cloud to realizing that the eruption has the capacity of 25x the amount of a supervolcano.
  • Out of Focus: Maggie is a major thorn on Rick's side over Yellowstone erupting, but she drops to the sidelines once things go to hell in the second part only making appearances during news broadcasting.
  • Outrun the Fireball: Technically it's a pyroclastic flow, but otherwise the trope is intact when Jock, Nancy and Matt flee the incoming pyroclastic flow. Matt and Nancy don't survive, sadly. Jock however does and manages to outfly the flow in a helicopter by telling the pilot to keep going up as they fly away from the eruption.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • The governor of Wyoming is a pretty reasonable guy when it comes down to it, and listens to Rick and his team, acknowledging that he's a politician, not a scientist.
    • Joe Foster, who was initially the most unreasonable, is the first one to hit the ground running when it all hits the fan.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Matt gives one to Maggie for trying to cover the eruption for her own personal fame. He makes it absolutely clear that if she tries to film the eruption, she will be killed by it.
  • Shown Their Work: This work started out as a 2002 BBC non-fiction science documentary. It's notable for both the accuracy of the depiction of the disaster, and the response to it.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: The reporter who constantly harasses Rick's team for information regarding Yellowstone is bent on getting a big scoop and the glory from it. As time goes on, she eventually realizes the gravity of the situation and backs down after a harrowing tour of the caldera... only to focus on the government's response to the impending eruption instead.
  • Storyboarding the Apocalypse: Rick discusses how the disaster will get worse with the government's task force.
  • Stock Footage: Footage from Pompeii The Last Day can be seen a couple of times.
  • Token Religious Teammate: Johnson is the only openly religious character in the story.
  • Wham Line:
    Nancy: Fifteen hundred cubic kilometers of melt.note 
  • Wham Shot:
    • Jock, Nancy and Matt are rightfully horrified when they notice the pyroclastic flow starting just as they're to flee Yellowstone.
    • When the route of the ash cloud is mapped out and compared to wind speed and direction, it's shown to cross over many major commercial air routes. Including the one Rick is on.
    • The final shot of the film is a series of satellite images of the United States, each encompassing more area than the last. The final one reveals the gargantuan new caldera formed by the eruption as well as revealing that the eruption has buried the entire western half of the United States, and large chunks of Canada and Mexico in ash.