< Norfolk Volcano

On Dangerous Ground? Volcanoes in Film & Television

< Norfolk Volcano

On Dangerous Ground? Volcanoes in Film & Television

Given the plots that have featured in films and TV programmes over the years, the idea of a volcano erupting in Norfolk isn’t as much of a stretch as you might imagine. Volcanoes on remote Pacific islands, okay. Fictional depictions of Vesuvius, yes. But a volcano in downtown Los Angeles? In Manhattan? Inside the M25? These, and more, await you below…

It was never going to win any Oscars, but hey, there is a VOLCANO!
It was never going to win any Oscars, but hey, it’s about a volcano…

Despite the fact that they are a visually spectacular natural disaster, volcanoes haven’t been as central to film or television narratives as you might imagine (and barely compete when compared with, say, earthquakes, meteors or alien invasions!); and, when they were featured (at least up until the 1990s), they tended to be an enjoyable backdrop or a convenient narrative resolution (how do we get rid of the unlikeable and blinkered character? Drop them into a crater / dissolve them in lava / sacrifice them to appease the gods). From the 1990s on, perhaps keeping pace with developments in special effects, the volcano becomes a more active participant in the drama (and is often referred to in dialogue as though it is a real character).

Oh, 2 provisos before I go on:

  1. For any scientists reading this: this overview is not a commentary on the scientific accuracy of the volcanoes being depicted (for that, you could try Erik Klemetti’s ‘Your Guide to Volcano Movies’)
  2. This is also (of necessity) a partial list: if you want to pursue volcanoes in film and TV further, I recommend this list of fifty-five TV/movie volcanoes on the U.S. Geological Survey website – or, for completists, why not look at the 440 entries IMDb lists under the keyword ‘volcano’!)

So, where was I…?

Through film history, few movie volcanoes dominated their narrative appearances. Instead, they acted as exotic scene dressing in far away islands (Cobra Woman, 1944; Alona of the Seven Seas, 1941; One Million B.C., 1940) or fantastic lost worlds (The Mysterious Island, 1929/1961; The Lost World, 1925; The Lost Volcano, 1950). In such films, it appears that all sufficiently remote Pacific islands have their own volcano, which is constantly on the verge of erupting and needs human sacrifices to keep it (or the ‘gods’) sated (Hollywood’s combination of native exoticism, sacrifice and the volcano is partly satirised / commented on in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), where Tom Hanks’ character agrees to throw himself into a volcano). While some of that exoticism has been removed in recent years (partly a result of the volcano’s relocation from remote rural location to high population urban centre), such lost world (and exotic native) elements have been transposed off-planet, with volcano / lava planets recently seen in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).

You could argue that volcanoes get a raw deal in that their main purpose has often been as a narrative crutch – who will be thrown into the volcano – or a narrative deus ex machina – the eruption (teased through the film) was traditionally a third act event, forcing the film’s dramatic elements to be tied up in a spectacular and emotionally overwrought climax (see, for example, When Time Ran Out, 1980; or The Devil at Four O’Clock, 1961). Of course, in recent years, films such as Dante’s Peak (1997), Volcano (1997) and 2012 (2009), alongside docudramas like Supervolcano (2005), have brought the spectacle of eruption much earlier in the narrative, as an initiating first act event that has to be survived (bringing volcanoes into line with more traditional disaster movie scenarios such as Earthquake, 1974; or The Towering Inferno, 1974.

(a side note: ‘The Coast is Toast’ is not only a classic movie tag line, but it nicely sums up the slightly tongue-in-cheek flavour of the film itself)

There is a third element to volcanoes in media: they are often the site of villainous lairs (perhaps an extension of the ‘lost city’ / lost island idea seen earlier). The most famous film volcano is likely Blofeld’s fake base, invaded by James Bond in You Only Live Twice (1967); a volcano base also appears in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999); a volcano is home to the dragon in How to Train Your Dragon (2010); and Sauron’s base in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) has a distinctly volcanic look to it.

Volcanoes were rarely neutral spaces in film or television anyway, but they have been tarred by association with such nefarious figures! Along with outright villains, the volcano has also been maligned through the machinations of a range of mad and deluded scientists attempting to harness geothermal energy, tap into the power of the Earth’s core, or hold the world to ransom. Doctor Who has used volcanoes in this way in several episodes: the villainous Salamander triggers eruptions in The Enemy of the World (1967), and Professor Stahlman’s experiments cause volcanic eruptions and lava flows in a parallel universe Home Counties, in Inferno (1970):

Volcanoes, pryoclastic flows and lava have cropped up several times in Doctor Who (and other British science fiction, such as Primeval): ‘Volcano’, episode 8 of The Dalek’s Master Plan (1965) is set on the volcanic planet of Tigus; the volcanic planet Sarn (and its ‘Time of Fire’) features in Planet of Fire (1983); and, most recently, the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) battled the volcanic Pyrovile in The Fires of Pompeii (2008), where (again) the volcano is being used for dastardly means, turning humans into Pyroviles.

What all of these examples point to is that writers and directors have a problem when it comes to using a volcano in a film or television programme: as a naturally occurring event, it is difficult for the volcano itself to be a protagonist or antagonist (even in Volcano and Dante’s Peak, which come closest to anthropomorphising it), meaning the volcano remains either a spectacular setting, a dramatic (or metaphoric) background for other drama, or the location of loosely related villainy.

As for whether the Norfolk Volcano will fit into any of the above categories (is there a secret alien or villainous base under the Broad?), only time will tell…

This post was written by Keith M. Johnston, Senior Lecturer in Film & Television at the University of East Anglia.

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