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Movie Review

For years, Hollywood has churned out formulaic disaster films that introduce stereotypical supporting characters for the sole purpose of killing them off one at a time in eye-popping fashion. Subplots often serve as mini soap operas. And screenwriters have played God, calculating audience reaction and assigning fates to their two-dimensional creations based on characters' personality flaws or moral shortcomings. Volcano is different.

After a series of geological murmurs, downtown L.A. is sent into cardiac arrest when a volcano erupts from the La Brea Tar Pits. Magma parades down Wilshire Boulevard and creeps through underground tunnels, melting everything in its path. Deadly "lava bombs" cascade through the air, torching palm trees, cars and buildings. It's up to Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones, as the city's emergency chief) and scientist Dr. Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) to outthink nature and end the chaos. But this is not your standard cinematic catastrophe.

Although its intensity—with frequent profanities and a few fiery fatalities—makes the film much too volatile to applaud as "family viewing," it's not a total disaster. Ticket holders who made Volcano the nation's top box-office draw opening weekend received moral messages that, while subtle at times, warrant praise.

The recently divorced Roark deeply loves his 13-year-old daughter despite her sullen, selfish attitude. The film makers attribute that sour disposition to her parents' split, correctly implying that divorce is unhealthy for children. When calamity strikes the city, the bratty teen softens, learning to accept responsibility and put others first. She also expresses genuine faith in her dad's ability to save the day. And she's not the only one transformed by tragedy.

"I think we love disaster movies because we get to experience a crisis as a community and explore how people rise to the occasion," says Volcano screenwriter Jerome Armstrong. His characters do exactly that. Police. Firefighters. Medical professionals. Citizens band together to hold back nature's wrath, setting aside prejudices and jeopardizing personal safety to lend a hand, turning L.A. into the city of brotherly lava. Volcano wants viewers to root for its cast, which is top-heavy with decent human beings. Some of those good Samaritans, however, pay the ultimate price. On more than one occasion, would-be rescuers become victims, modeling the sacrifice Jesus spoke of in John 15:13.

The film also gives several nods to religious faith. A subway foreman prays as he faces death to save an employee. And when Roark paraphrases Matthew 7:26, his geologist sidekick swiftly sites chapter and verse, indicating that heroes can have a working knowledge of Scripture. There's also a passing reference to Moses parting the Red Sea.

Eventually, the molten threat is reduced to a smoldering blob. As the ash settles and the credits roll, theater goers walk away relieved that their own homes and families remain intact. Volcano is far from perfect entertainment. The profanity alone will cause many forewarned families to head for higher ground. But in a genre used to teasing viewers with impersonal carnage and a creatively executed body count, this entry takes a humane step in the right direction.


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