Beyond a choke... a disaster of a movie

Volcano (15)

Directed by: Mick Jackson. Starring: Tommy Lee Jones

In a real disaster, people are as likely as not just to stand there while the world falls apart around them, or under them, or on top of them.

It's to the credit of Mick Jackson's new disaster movie Volcano that we do see a few citizens of Los Angeles simply standing around disconnected when their neighbourhood turns out to be the birth place of a new volcano, and lava, the devil's bright treacle, begins to flow towards them. They're just extras while the film's sketchily drawn characters are being educated by crisis, as the genre has come to require.

Disaster movies seem to confront the meaningless unpredictability of nature, while resolutely denying it. Every foreshortened strand of narrative shows a sharp learning curve, as Americans reconsider their lives right up to the moment of death.

When Pompeii was destroyed by Etna, there is no evidence that the citizens had time to sift through their life choices and emotional baggage. By and large they curled up and died. Here, under a grey snow of ash, Angelenos consider what is really important, and what is not. The film's body count - a hundred - is astonishingly low, which may be partly a matter of hanging on to a 12 certificate.

It is also characteristic of the disaster film to retract the specific prospect it seems to offer, of our contemplating death on a large scale without individual self-improvement, as casual mass extinction. It's no coincidence that the most mysterious and metaphysical of disaster films, the most frustrating and satisfying, is the one where the relationship between human behaviour and natural retribution is most opaque - Hitchcock's The Birds.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Mike Roark, director of the City's Office of Emergency Management, who is supposed to be on holiday but can't keep away from the office. He's meant to be looking after his daughter Kelly (Gabby Hoffman), who is terrified of the slightest little earthquake.

As the disaster builds, Mike sends Kelly to the safest place there is, and wouldn't you know, it turns out to be the hottest spot of them all. He is constantly being forced to choose between his private and public responsibilities, constantly refusing to choose, and somehow managing to fulfil them both without loss. Meanwhile, an idealistic young doctor comes to understand that her boyfriend's priorities are altogether self- seeking. Since Los Angeles is the city of Rodney King and OJ Simpson, a racial mini-drama is also included.

There are two white policemen with different attitudes to an awkward black citizen, one confrontational and one conciliatory. Good Cop wants him to go home, Bad Cop handcuffs him. Then, when everyone pulls together to build a lava barrier, they find the true nature of community.

The theme of unity underlying diversity is spelled out near the end of the film. A boy separated from his mother is asked to identify or describe her. Everyone in view is smeared with grey ash, the toxic flakes of volcano dandruff, and he says, "Look at their faces. They all look the same." Lava can be an agent of bonding, in fact lava calls out to lava, the molten interior core we all share.

It's typical of the haphazard construction of the film that we don't even see the boy reunited with his mother. Similarly Anne Heche (playing the film's OCS - Obligatory Cute Seismologist) is brave, independent and far-seeing for most of the running time, and then abruptly takes a back seat to male heroics, agreeing to locate Kelly for Mike. From then on, it's all reaction shots for her, horror or relief, and mild romantic by-play.

The tone of the film isn't altogether serious, but the humour works best when it isn't spelled out - the building of the American Lung Foundation, for instance, wreathed in choking smoke.