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Film / Volcano

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It's Armageddon on Earth!

"We're going to put as many people in front of it as it takes. Listen up, people! Let me tell you what's south of us: no more museums, no more department stores, just homes! People! If we turn and run now, they're going to be defenseless! You don't like my plan? That's good. Give me another plan, but don't tell me we're backing out!"
Mike Roark

"The coast is toast."

Volcano is a 1997 Disaster Movie directed by Mick Jackson and starring Tommy Lee Jones as Mike Roark, head of the Los Angeles Emergency Management Center.

One day, after an early morning earthquake, Roark discovers fire erupting below the city. A scientist, Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), points him to volcanic activity brewing underneath the La Brea Tar Pits. Later that night, an actual volcano, later named Mount Wilshire, emerges from the tar pits and erupts.

It's up to Mike and his management team, including his second-in-command Emmit Reese (Don Cheadle), to save the city from total destruction.


"The tropes are toast":

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Tired of listening to Amy and Stan bicker before he can find out what's going on, Roark says, "Thanks for coming down at such short notice, but could you save the fight for another time?" Without missing a beat, Amy looks at her watch and says, "Sure, is 2:00 okay with you?" Both Roark and Stan chuckle at that.
  • Apathetic Citizens: When the elephant statue at La Brea starts to sink and melt into the tar you can see in the background people minding their own business, despite both said sinking happening fast enough to be easily noticeable along with with the boiling water surrounding it. And when the volcano first erupts, several firefighters would rather put out store fires than help a screaming trapped firefighter out of an overturned truck, with lava steadily approaching.
  • Artistic License – Geology: The volcano exists purely because of the Anthropic Principle...
    • California is a geologically complex place with many centers of volcanic activity, but most of them aren't anywhere near the Los Angeles Basin. The closest volcanic rocks are millions of years old from long extinct volcanic activity, and the Los Angeles area has no volcanoes active or even recently extinct, with no volcanic activity anticipated in the foreseeable future of human presence.
    • And of course, the La Brea Tar Pits are in a deep sedimentary basin associated with a transform boundary, and for bonus points, they are tar pits. The LA basin is also full of oil wells. Petroleum deposits cannot form geologically in the presence of volcanic activity anywhere in the vicinity; you can't have oil, tar, and volcanoes in the same place, period.
    • This volcano erupts only two products - volcanic ash and fluid lava. Deadly gas makes only a brief appearance and never on the surface. In reality sulfur dioxide, which even minor eruptions emit in quantities measured in megatons, is a NFPA Level 3 toxin.
    • There's also the scene where they block and deal with the main lava flow, they also sprayed water into the volcano’s vent directly to pacify it. In reality, if you tried to cool down a volcano, then you would most likely make the eruption phreatic or phreatomagmatic. Which considering that these types of eruptions are a crapton more dangerous than plain lava eruptions, you would pretty much be asking for Los Angeles to be levelled by pyroclastic base surges. note 
    • Things that are dropped on or in a lava flow don't sink. Yes, the lava is red-hot and yes it will melt metal or consume other matter, but despite being liquid, it is still rock and just as dense as that word implies. Ironically, the scene where Roark blocks the lava with k-rails averts this, as its shown that the several foot deep river of lava has enough mass to slightly push back the concrete berms and the fire trucks keeping them in place. Which it would, since it's probably several dozen tons.
      • This also means, however, that the scene involving Stan's death would have been a hell of a lot more gruesome - rather than doing a relatively sedate Margaret Hamilton-Wicked Witch of the West melt-away, he would've been laying on top of the lava flow, burning and quickly roasting to death. Wave that PG-13 bye-bye...
    • The volcano in question also forms itself impossibly quickly when lava does break through to the surface full force, growing to full size in literally a handful of scenes. While a volcano may be quick when it forms itself, it takes at least a few hours if not a few days for one to build up to the size shown so quickly. This one takes only 12-13 seconds.
    • Regardless of where it happens, seismologists use UTC when recording the time of an earthquake. The time of the earthquake should therefore have been recorded as 1614 or 1714 (depending on whether Daylight Saving Time was in effect).
  • Artistic License – Physics:
    • They place concrete barriers in a cul-de-sac so when the lava reaches them it'll dam itself, but they face it in the wrong direction for the dam to work. In real life dams and bridges need to have the arc against the point with the most pressure.
    • All scientists, including those from America, use metric measurements. Therefore, Amy's equipment should have given the temperature in Celsius, not Fahrenheit.
  • Brick Joke: When Rachel has stage fright and refuses to speak to reporters about the earthquake, she insists a pencil pusher do it. He points out that after an earthquake people would want to hear from a seismologist, not him. After another earthquake and the seismologists are MIA, there's a shot of the pencil pusher guy speaking to reporters.
  • Cassandra Truth: No-one believes the experts about the coming eruption. Though considering no-one else seems to even know what lava is, this was an uphill battle from the beginning.
  • Cat Scare: Or more... a Rat scare. A couple rats spook two of the characters. But they press on deeper into the storm drain. Then they see the charred rats as the Thermal Camera goes nuts...
  • Chekhov's Volcano: Averted, since the titular volcano is not yet formed in the beginning of the movie. But given its title...
  • Children Are Special: During one of the closing scenes, Lt. Fox asks a rescued young boy what his mother looks like. After looking around a moment at the survivors and emergency personnel covered in ash, he remarks, "Look at their faces. They all look the same." Cue the uplifting string ensemble.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Stan is introduced chewing nicotine gum. When the volcano starts to erupt and they lose contact with a train, he takes out a cigarette and starts smoking.
  • Confiscated Phone: Roark was confiscates a cell phone from a radio reporter when his own phone becomes unusable.
  • Conflict Ball: Kevin who’s an African American from the neighborhood and Jasper who’s a racist cop are shown both arguing while the eruption and lava flow are going on.
  • Convection Schmonvection: Played anywhere from painfully straight to completely averted, as the plot demands.
    • The whole movie runs on this trope. A lava flow like depicted wouldn't be stopped by much of anything man could put in front of it...all that really could be done is evacuate and run like hell, but that wouldn't make for half as interesting a movie.
    • In some scenes lava represents no threat to anything it isn't directly touching. Even if you're directly above it and a few feet away, inside or on top of a metal vehicle that is actually melting in the heat. Then in another scene, Roark, 10 feet above a lava flow, can't even hold his hand over it for more than a second without great pain (which is what it would be like in real life.) Basically convection that works by the Rule of Cool.
    • The weirdest example was the death of Stan, jumping into a lava flow to save a life (See Heroic Sacrifice). He didn't simply burst into flame and vaporize when he hits the lava; he melts. Guy had a skeleton of titanium, and it still didn't save him. Neither did his ability to stand five feet above molten lava unscathed as a subway car lierally melts (complete with dripping metal) around him.
    • There are too many instances to count where individuals are standing directly on the other side of concrete barriers redirecting and holding back lava. In real life, low-viscosity lava of this type is around 1,500-1,800 degrees Farenheit, and will cause anything flammable within about ten feet to spontaneously combust. Even the very best thermal proximity gear (which is very bulky and cumbersome to work in) is only rated for protection against radiant heat up to about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and even then only for very brief periods before the protective material delaminates. Firefighting turnout gear such as that used by LAFD and other fire departments is only rated to 300 degrees (though it can withstand that level of heat for much longer and is significantly easier to work in). Standing that close to a lava flow would actually cause the fire-resistant Nomex fabric of their turnout gear to burst into flames.
  • Da Chief: Chief Sindelar of the LAPD is this trope to the core. Even though we don’t see him in the film at all, he’s not afraid to remind Roark about how things work in Los Angeles compared to Kansas/St Louis and that his disregard for procedures and gung-ho mentality is a problem for the rest of city officials.
  • Down L.A. Drain: In the finale, they demolished an empty high-rise so it would fall into the path of a stream of lava flowing down a street, directing it into a storm drain where it would flow into the sea.
    • Unlike most examples, Ballona Creek is used instead of the Los Angeles River.
  • Deadly Gas: Superheated volcanic and toxic gases issuing from a crack in the storm drain lining was responsible for the deaths of the 7 workers at the beginning of the film. It nearly kills Roark and Gator when they go down to have a look themselves. Then shortly before the tar pit eruption, it kills Rachel when she and Amy go down to examine it.
    • Also most of the people on the number four subway train are rendered unconscious by the rising heat and volcanic gas.
  • Feet of Clay: Minor example with Kelly having a scene with her father about what to do during an earthquake, yet during an actual earthquake she just sits in bed and screams until her father pulls her out and puts them under a doorway.
    • Though it is explained in a phone conversation with Kelly's mother where she warns Mike of Kelly's tendency to freeze up in a crisis.
  • Fight to Survive: Trying to stay alive after a freaking volcano pops up in Los Angeles.
  • Four Is Death: The subway train that gets derailed and eventually destroyed by the lava is number four.
  • Genre Blindness: The usual disaster movie ignorance is of course present but no one in LA has a clue what a volcanic eruption or lava looks like. Sure, the first time people actually see lava it's understandable they do a double-take. However it soon gets to the point where the film seems to be set in an alternate reality where the very existence of volcanoes is an obscure geological fact completely unfamiliar to the general public.
    TV Anchorwoman: Well, we now have a name for this crisis. It is, according to the US Geological Survey, a "volcano"
    • Though to be fair, that line isn't said as if nobody's heard of volcanoes before, it's said like nobody's heard of a volcano popping up in the middle of a city before. Nobody's ever shocked by the existence of volcanoes, they're shocked by the existence of one right here right now. (Which, for reasons explained above, justifies almost any sense of disbelief.)
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Many of the department heads of the city besides Roark are completely oblivious to the fact that there IS a serious problem. The General Manager of the DWP/Department of Water and Power assumes that the death of the seven workers from the DPW/Department of Public Works in the storm drain was caused by steam, which later was found to be a flame burn and is very ambivalent about Roark investigating the incident. Stan, the MTA chairman refuses to halt the red line subway trains even after Roark finds out that something isn’t right because he doesn’t have conflicting evidence/demonstrable risk. Even Roark gets one moment of HITSM for not letting Amy go down to the storm drain investigate for herself what the problem is. A lot of the problems could have been avoided and many lives could have been saved if everyone would have listened to each other and took precautions.
  • Hero Stole My Bike: At one point, Roark steals a cop's motorcycle.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    Emmit (watching Roark oversee someone's desk) That man loves to hover.
    O.E.M. Staffer (Emmit is hovering over his desk) Like you don't.
  • Idiot Ball: Surprisingly few of the main characters grasp it for a disaster movie. Instead, it's passed between reporters, none of whom are aware of what a "volcano" or "lava" is, and who insist on running "rescued animal" human interest stories while the disaster is ongoing. They should have sacrificed a few of them to the volcano gods to appease them - would have worked as well as anything else!
  • Ignored Expert: Amy knows what she’s talking about but none of the city officials takes her seriously until shit really hits the fan.
  • Infant Immortality: All the small children survive. And so does a small Jack Russell named Bill. Just in case that wasn't enough to assure you no innocents were harmed there is even a brief news report on vets setting up an emergency pet shelter.
  • Interservice Rivalry: There’s a lot of jabs between several of the department heads of the city of Los Angeles. Stan, the MTA chairman poking fun at the general manager of the DWP for “blowing pipes” in the storm drain and the general manager before sarcastically asks Stan “How’s the choo choo behaving these days??” to which Stan gives a annoyed/disapproving look. Also the General Manager cringing when Roark shows up to the storm drain where the seven Public Works workers burned to death and exclaiming that Mike is never happy unless he’s declaring an emergency. Stan refusing to halt the subway trains and saying that it’s all DWP’s mess and they’re the ones who should take the shit for it. Roark saying to the Chief of the LAPD that people from Public Works and the DWP are idiots and then the bickering back and forth between Amy and Stan. Amy thinks that the problems are arising from Stan and MTA building the subway on unstable land while Stan mentions to Roark that if he disagrees with Amy? She will force him to be in City Council meetings for the next 12 months.
    Fire Chief: Nobody gives a shit about San Francisco!
  • Jerkass: Norman Calder, the rich yuppie and owner of the Beverly Center towers, wanted his doctor wife, Jaye, to stop working with the injured downtown patients because they were just poor people. He finally stalked off, never to be seen again on screen once his wife insisted on doing, y'know, her job.
  • Karmic Death: Stan, the Metro Chairman who refused to stop the Red Line subway. He does go out in a Heroic Sacrifice however which makes up for his decision not to stop the subway trains.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Norman Calder, who’s mentioned above as a Jerkass, wanted his doctor wife Jaye to leave behind the injured and flee the city, owns a couple new towers that hovers over the Beverly Center. It gets knocked down to channel the lava.
  • The Lava Caves of New York: The Los Angeles basin is exactly the wrong kind of place to ever have volcanism. California has active volcanoes (Mt. Lassen erupted in 1917 and Mt. Shasta is also active), but, as note elsewhere on this page, the geography of L.A. simply doesn't support the formation of volcanoes.
  • The Load: Kelly. If it wasn't for her dad, she would have died long before the midpoint of the movie. The kid that Kelly eventually looks after is at least a close runner-up.
  • Monumental Damage: The mammoth statue in the La Brea Tar Pits slowly sinks and melts prior to the volcano's formation, the Angelyne billboard gets hit with a lava bomb, and a significant portion of Wilshire Boulevard gets covered in lava.
  • No Endor Holocaust: America's second largest city has a volcanic eruption take place, yet the body count at the end of the film is a paltry 100 with a few thousand injured. Considering the destruction on screen, not just from the lava itself but numerous secondary fires and the accompanying mass panic, this result is nothing short of divine intervention. Oh and the city now lives under a blanket of poison gas and razor-sharp pulverized rock (the "ash") from the actively erupting Mount Wilshire.
  • Plot Armor: Early on, Kelly gets splattered on her leg with lava, and isn't any more injured than if it had been boiling water. In the climax, however, people get hit with similarly-sized bits of lava from the vent that opens near the hospital, and are burned to death in a matter of seconds.
  • Prejudice Aesop: The movie has this as something of a theme. While most of the focus is trying to stop the lava from an active volcano from spreading across Los Angeles, there's likewise the message we have to work together to survive at all and prejudice will only hinder that. A minor plotline had a black man getting hassled and later arrested over a squabble by a white cop. Though the cop lets him go in lieu of the crisis and later the black man helps him and other first responders by lifting a roadblock barricade needed to be put in place with others and slow the lava. Which the cop later thanks him by getting a fire truck to go down to his neighborhood and put out the fires there. At the end, when the lava flow is finally stopped and ashes rain down from the smoke cloud, covering everyone in them. A boy that was rescued comments "Everyone looks the same".
  • Red Shirt Reporter: At one point, a reporter is standing only barely on the right side of the concrete barriers holding the lava back! Convection Schmonvection indeed...
  • Red Shirt: Conventional Red Shirts are everywhere in this movie. If there's a major operation or event (the eruption, a lava flow, the controlled detonation, etc), almost guaranteed someone's going to die in it.
  • Running Gag: The fact Emmit wants Roark's job.
  • Say Your Prayers: Stan recites a Hail Mary while carrying the unconscious driver through the burning train as he knows that one of them aren’t going to make it out alive.
  • Shout-Out: When describing how bad the lava flow is, Emmit at one point says, "Moses couldn't re-route this shit!"
  • Soft Glass: Immediately following an It's Quiet... Too Quiet / Oh, Crap! scene where the roar of seismic and volcanic activity suddenly stops, there is an explosion that results in the windows of all the surrounding buildings getting blown out. The glass from this visibly (and hilariously) strikes Jaye directly in the face, as well as showering Mike. They both shake it off like they wouldn't have been cut to shreds. (To clarify: what lands on Roark and Jaye is obviously safety automobile glass, but in the U.S.A. at least, that type of glass is never used in buildings because of its relative fragility - the exact reason it is used in cars).
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Averted with Roark, who sees an honest-to-God volcano develop right in his home town and explicitly refuses to evacuate, instead preferring to fight it. This would be a straight example... except the movie agrees with him.
    • Kelly. She claims to not need a babysitter but she freezes up constantly, forcing people to drop what they're doing (which in once instance includes trying to save someone else's life) to bail her ass out.
      • She distracts her father from rescuing two trapped firemen - when she had plenty of time to get away from the lava - and they burn to death. She also just sits and stares at a freshly ejected lava bomb, until a bit of said lava spits out from it and hits her in the leg - giving her a second degree burn. Kid has Plot Armor about 10 feet thick.
      • Another instance has her losing a kid she was put in charge of looking after. She finally locates him on an exploding street...then decides to stay there and wait to be saved.
      • For that matter, Tommy, the aforesaid kid, who leaves the Hard Rock Cafe (which contains someone who is taking care of him, and another little girl he's been playing games with) and wanders out into an empty parking garage for literally no reason. And, as mentioned above, makes it all the way out to the street, alone, when any sensible kid ought to have been terrified to be away from an adult.
    • Given she is the assistant to doctorate geologist Amy, you would expect Rachel to know a thing or two about rocks and volcanoes. Rachel even backs Amy's theory about volcanic activity being a culprit regarding the death for seven men in an underground tunnel. Yet, while they investigate that very tunnel, Rachel decides to straddle a large crack surrounded by sulfur residue. What could possibly go wrong?
  • Worst Aid: Zigzagged and not in a good way with the down firefighters. Roark tells someone he believes to be a civilian to not move down personnel and that ambulances are on the way - good. Roark (who is not a medic) defers to medical expertise once the civilian identifies themselves as a doctor - good. Dr. Calder assessing injuries for severity and determining trauma care she can't provide is needed - good. Dr. Calder opting to transport serious vehicle accident casualties in a civilian car with no immobilization - not good! Roark just told her that ambulances are on the way (this is the middle of otherwise normal Los Angeles, this claim will be valid), paramedics are good at stabilizing serious vehicle accident casualties, and both of these people may have CNS injuries that can be lethal if not immobilized.
    • The area isn't exactly safe though, given the volcano exploding literally a couple hundred meters away, rapidly approaching lava, and constantly falling lava bombs. Even if there's no way to properly immobilize the wounded, the risk of moving them is lower than the risk of sitting still and waiting for ambulances. Especially considering that there are explosions and fires all over, a serious earthquake has just occured, and roads are jammed - this is not normal Los Angeles; there is no guarantee the ambulances will show up. Dr. Calder taking the casualties to the hospital in her car was clearly the right choice, especially considering that the summoned ambulance never actually arrives, the only emergency workers to reach the site are police officers and firefighters.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Or, in this case, they don't even bother: a news report at the end of the film shows a satellite image of the volcano and the lava path into the Pacific Ocean, with a time stamp of the time in Los Angeles preceded with "GMT". Depending on when the film is set, the time stamp should be seven or eight hours later (ie 1403 or 1503).

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