Magma: Volcanic Disaster (2006)

Let’s agree upon the following axiom: That any disaster movie — be the disaster raging tornados, towering infernos, off the Richter Scale earthquakes, wildly erumpent volcanoes, marauding aliens, or a plague of killer bees — wherein the solution to the titular disaster devolves to the deployment of nuclear warheads, is, automatically and forever, to be considered…well, unredeemably disastrous. Further, we also hold the following sub-axioms to be equally true, and damning: a) any melodramatic subplots involving an estranged love interest and/or children of the grizzled and beleaguered hero (generally a scientist), in which said relations invariably wind up directly endangered by said disaster; b) meddling bureaucratic government officials who refuse to acknowledge the obvious veracity of aforementioned grizzled scientist/hero’s heretofore crackpot warnings of imminent global doom.

Magma: Volcanic Disaster (a title which demands, but never quite earns, multiple exclamation points in its main title, and sub-) cleanly nails this unholy trifecta of Disaster Movie 101, adding as the icing on the dormant volcanoes that is its cake some agreeably tacky CGI lava effects that push it up a level from merely inept made-for-TV hokum to a master class in C-grade filmmaking. And while the preceding may sound unduly harsh and damning for such a modest, harmless production, I assure you that my words signify only the highest of praise. As a lifelong connoisseur of bad disaster movies, my enjoyment always rises in direct proportion to the innocent awfulness of its production values and the lunacy of its plot.

So it seems that, for reasons couched in the usual blather of dubious science always attendant in these films, volcanoes have started a process of erupting the world around, along a predetermined path figured out by our beleaguered (and, yes, grizzled) geologist hero, Dr. Pete Shepard. Shepard and his crack team of perky grad student volunteers nearly meet their untimely demise out on excavation, when some rather troublesome liquid rock starts to cascade down a volcano in Iceland that has lain dormant for thousands of years. But how can this suddenly be? And is this a harbinger of a greater disturbance along the worlds fault lines and underneath its tectonic plates, a disturbance which will ultimately lead to a massive global conflagration of volcanic activity, where NOTHING LESS THAN THE EXISTENCE OF HUMANKIND will be at stake? What do you think?

What I like best about Magma: Volcanic Disaster is its breezy lack of invention and ambition. Its plot displays nary a hint of originality, the dialogue is stilted and banal, and both the cause of, and solution to, the central disaster are foreordained from the first frame. Due, most likely, to budget constraints, there is a nearly total eschewing of the typical gaudy spectacle we come to expect with disaster movies. No exploding White Houses, no magma rivers burbling up in downtown Los Angeles, no tsunamis crashing into New York City. Aside from a few poorly rendered eruptions and creeping lava flows, all reportage of the deleterious effects of this epidemic of volcanic activity is done on television reports within the film itself, almost as total asides to merely spur on our heroes’ race against the clock.

Its eerily disquieting, in a way: this lack of screen visuals of geologic cataclysm seems to rub off on the characters within the film itself. Things just never seem all that desperate. As they go about trying to figure out an ultimate cure to the Earth’s woes, they are all decidedly unfrantic and calm. The mortal seriousness of what’s happening, because they can’t actually see it (and neither can we), never seems to sink in. Shepard (played to blasé grizzled perfection by Xander Berkley, last seen nobly sacrificing himself crashing a plane laden with a nuclear warhead into the desert on the second season of 24) seems to be impervious to panic, taking it all in laconic stride. His merry band of fledging scientists is brave and bubbly — especially the perpetually cheerful Brianna (Amy Jo Johnson, a poor man’s Jennifer Garner) — but also seem to be unaware that NOTHING LESS THAN THE EXISTENCE OF HUMANKIND is what’s in the chips.

Really, the only time Shepard and Co. seems to get all that hot under the color is when they square off against stuffy USGS bigwigs, who simply cannot fathom that the Earth is falling apart around them, even as every single volcano on the planet is popping off simultaneously. Soon enough, though, such bureaucratic obstacles are removed by a convivial and, more importantly, eco-conscious President, who ultimately green lights Shepard’s preposterous plan to relieve the pressure on the Earth’s surface by peppering the beds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with (you guessed it!) nuclear warheads, thus opening up multiple fissures the world around where the rising magma can leak out harmlessly miles beneath the sea.

And wouldn’t you know it?! IT WORKS!!

It’s tough to figure what the real intention/purpose ofMagma: Volcanic Disaster is. While it starts off rather promisingly, with a great doomsday scenario straight out of the classic ’70’s disaster movie playbook, by the all too quick and convenient finale, the movie seems to mirror more recent disaster fare (like the exceptionally ridiculous The Day After Tomorrow), veering into a didactic polemic against global warming and embracing an eco/environmentally moral in an unintentionally campy monologue by the President (note: these are all agendas I fully support — I just fault the execution). But really, now, global warming has caused the Earth’s core to expand and force its radioactive innards up through volcanoes? Really? Again, though, dubious science is the very lifeblood of disaster films. Who are we to argue with the formula?

And it’s just too hard and unfair to truly fault a film which knows and acknowledges its proper place, which is firmly slotted into its late Saturday afternoon on the Sci Fi Channel environs (which is precisely where Magma: Volcanic Disastercomes from), and mostly with its tongue slotted firmly in cheek, even if it doesn’t know it. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Magma: Volcanic Disaster (then again, I like just about every bad disaster movie ever made), and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) I actually think it would’ve fared a bit better with some added heft (it burns through its 87 minutes quickly). But unless you have a thing for secondary 24 alum (in addition to Berkley, multi-season actress Reiko Aylesworth makes a cursory appearance as Berkley’s estranged, imperiled wife), or you’re a bad made-for-TV-disaster-movie completist, or there’s absolutely nothing else on and you are just too lazy to hit the remote, I trust few if any of you will ever have occasion to watch this wonderful bit of apocalyptic nonsense. KABOOM!!!

RATING 5 / 10