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Film / Volcano

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"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

Volcano is a 1997 American Disaster Movie directed by Mick Jackson and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gaby Hoffmann, Don Cheadle, and Keith David.

Mike Roark (Jones) is head of the Los Angeles Office of Emergency Management. One day, following an early-morning earthquake, he discovers fire erupting below the city. A scientist, Dr. Amy Barnes (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 (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.
  • Anyone Can Die: Surprisingly downplayed for a Disaster Movie, as the only major casualties are Mauve Shirts.
  • 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 – Geography: While the volcanic eruption is very well marked by real LA streets and landmarks, the paths involved are...elastic. Ceders-Sinai is closer to La Brea than Macarthur Park is but we get a lot of driving. Fairfax is ~ 1000 feet from La Brea, but also slightly up-hill; lava would be more likely to flow north from the Tar Pits and out onto West 6th, which has more favorable topography.
  • 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 phreaticnote  or phreatomagmaticnote . 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 leveled 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.
  • As the Good Book Says...: When Amy calls the Powers That Be in the city arrogant because they built a subway line over an earthquake fault line, Roark quotes Matthew 7:26 ("Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn't do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand"), which Amy recognizes.
  • Big Blackout: Caused by the second, major earthquake, and the typical dramatic Slow Electricity type that goes sector by sector until the whole city is dark.
  • 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 (with Rachel ultimately killed during it when she and Amy are investigating the storm drain), 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 Roark and Gator. 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 confiscates a cell phone from a radio reporter when his own phone becomes unusable.
  • Conflict Ball: Kevin, who’s an African American from the Stanley Avenue neighborhood, and Jasper, who’s a racist cop, are shown both arguing while the eruption and lava flow are going on. Kevin is angered that officials are more concerned about Wilshire than they are with residential areas surrounding it, which are, for the most part, being ignored. Once the cop's partner lets him go, Kevin realizes that helping will benefit his neighborhood and pitches in, after which racist cop does him a solid and dispatches a firetruck to his neighborhood.
  • 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.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Pretty much everyone who is killed by the volcano’s effects goes out in a pretty nasty way (though as some of the Artistic License entries above show, some of them were actually less nasty than they would have been in real life).
  • 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.
  • Deadline News: At one point, a reporter is standing only barely on the right side of the concrete barriers holding the lava back! Convection, Schmonvection indeed...
  • Disaster-Dodging Dog: As the first lava flow destroys Wilshire Boulevard, a woman forgets her dog in her house. Much to her relief, it manages to run unscathed with its bone to safety (despite barking at the lava from a distance of barely 3ft).
  • 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.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: In the film's Darkest Hour, a huge river of magma is headed right for an improvised hospital on the street and they have no way to evacuate or divert the river in time, Roark notices the reflection of an under-construction apartment skyscraper across the street, and he comes up with the idea to topple the building to make an impromptu dam.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The entire film takes place over about a single day, with the bulk of the action occurring over about two hours, tops (from 5 AM to sunrise).
  • 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".
  • 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 his seven workers 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.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Stan jumps into the lava flow so that he can throw an unconscious train driver to safety.
    • Gator and a SWAT officer, pinned underneath rubble during the effort to redirect the lava flow, call in the all clear to detonate the final explosive after realizing that rescuing them would result in the plan’s failure.
  • Honor Before Reason: Gator stays behind with his trapped partner from the demolition team as the building they're in is blown up rather than flee, just so he won't die alone.
  • Hope Spot: Roark and the city's emergency services, against all odds, manage to dam up the river of molten lava before it's able to reach the major residential areas. However, Barnes calls in to warn him that the bulk of the flow has simply diverted underground through the subway lines, and it's headed right for the makeshift hospital centre where Roark sent his daughter.
  • 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!
    • Most of the main characters avoid clutching the Idiot Ball when the danger arrives. The key word is "most", because it's hard to imagine how anyone else could get a turn when Kelly spends the whole movie with it clamped to her chest like she thinks it's a winning lottery ticket.
  • Ignored Expert: Amy knows what she’s talking about but none of the city officials takes her seriously until shit really hits the fan.
  • I'm Melting!: The extreme heat of the lava flow results in Stan slowly melting after he jumps into it.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: 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:
  • 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.
  • Married to the Job:
    • Mike is very much this. He strongly insists on going to help with the aftermath of the earthquake despite being on a week VACATION with his daughter and never mind the fact that the quake was only a 4.9 (granted the quake was just a sign of things to come) which Emmitt points out to him.
    • Turns out Mike’s passion for his job is what led to his divorce with Kelly’s mother as she abrasively but rightfully reminds him of that fact when she calls him to complain about Mike leaving Kelly at home (albeit with a babysitter) and for putting the job over the both of them.
  • Mauve Shirt: Gator.
  • A Molten Date with Death: Happens twice, in two of the film's more memorably grisly and tragic scenes:
    • A fire fighter is trapped in an overturned fire truck near the tar pits as the lava flow slowly advances towards and begins engulfing the vehicle as he screams. A second fire fighter tries to climb onto the truck and pull him free, but this only results in both men dying and the truck sinks into the flow with both men inside.
    • Later, Stan risks (and gives) his life to go back for the motorman on the subway train which is sinking into the lava. Upon reaching the door, he realizes the lava has outdistanced him and he can't save both himself and the other man. So he throws the motorman to the other rescue team members and in so doing falls into the lava and sinks in for a pretty moving but grisly Heroic Sacrifice.
  • 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, the Petersen Automotive Museum and the Saban Theater (known at the time as the Fox Wilshire Theater) go up in flames 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 ... assuming, of course, that the "100" isn't just the initial confirmed deaths, with an unknown but far larger number of victims being incinerated and missing. 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.
  • 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".
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Lt. Edward Fox.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Drama: What are the odds that the little boy that Roarke's daughter was supervising walks all the way through a building full of adults without anyone noticing, out into the street, right into the path of a building being demolished just as it's falling, with Roarke himself having to run in at the last second to save her? The answer is, as plausible as it needs to be for there to be one last moment of audience tension.
  • Running Gag: The fact Emmit wants Roark's job.
  • Sassy Black Woman: The black female cop who's in conflict with the DWP workers. Their vehicle is on public property and no one ran a work order past her, so she has legitimate reason to confront them, and she uses a lot of stereotypical black female sass and snark and word usage. "How 'bout I tow your ass, honey?" is a clear example of that.
  • 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!"
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!!: Dr. Calder’s response to Norman telling her to leave with him and that the injured patients aren’t worth dying for is absolute silence and basically a way of telling him to go fuck himself. Norman realizes he’s not going to sway or buy her in anyway, finally throws in the towel and bails.
  • Slow Electricity: When the major quake strikes, the Big Blackout that descends upon LA does so in the typical sector-by-sector slow fashion, leaving the skyscrapers in the city center for last.
  • 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 depending on if the volcano has its real volcanic hazards or not.
    • No one other than some firefighters with their turnout masks wears eye protection, even though volcanic ash will cause serious eye injury. Similarly, few people wear any respiratory protection despite Los Angeles emergency services having a great deal of this for dealing with post-quake hazards (there is a throwaway line about many of the workers being incapacitated by ash inhalation though).
    • The above extends to the subway rescue team who have no thermal or respiratory protection despite going into an environment that can (as it has already for a work crew) become a searing gas chamber.
    • Ditto an outdoor field hospital at Ceders-Sinai that is only around one mile from the La Brea Tar Pits. This is way too close especially for medically fragile and wounded people. While it is threatened by lava later, the biggest danger is a wind shift would drop volcanic ash and possible lethal levels of sulphur dioxide on Ceders. Anything indoors would be better and Ceders should itself be being evacuated. This one is Roark's fault as he designates it as the primary medical center.
    • 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 Los Angeles)), 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. One does start bleeding out from an opened leg injury in the car, as it happens.
      • This one is justifiable if the volcano is back to being a volcano as anyone that close could be asphyxiated in moments. Also for some reason the emergency personnel who arrive consist of LAPD and LAFD, with few if any medics.
  • 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).
  • Yet Another Baby Panda: Even as a volcano is actively erupting in downtown Los Angeles, local news stations are running stories on pets which have been rescued from burning homes and a makeshift veterinarian clinic set up on the street for injured animals.


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MatPat Explains Dueling Works

During one of his theories on the film industry, he educates the audience on how studios back in the day would release movies with similar premises, citing two pairs as examples.

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