Magma: Volcanic Disaster (2006)

Today we have yet another Sci-Fi Channel original film, one of a seemingly endless line of end-of-the-world disaster movies (and I'll review every last one!). Filmed in cheap-as-dirt Bulgaria and stocked with interchangeable background extras to bookend the two American D-list stars, it's just as bad/good as you would expect. The title is interesting, in a "god, our audience is retarded" sort of way. It's like the studio called down to say that only one person out of their hundred-person focus group knew what "magma" was (the other 99 thought it was either a second baseman for the Yankees or some sort of Korean comic book). So in the end, instead of just changing the title to Big Explosions and Stuff, Plus Boobies, they added the subtitle Volcanic Disaster to keep the studio happy.

Let's get it over with...

We open on a volcano in Iceland, where a survey team is doing some tests on stuff (it's a volcano, it's either exploding in a fiery vomit of molten rock and death, or it's not, you can see that on Google Earth and save some airline mileage). As the team blithers around, the once-quiet volcano suddenly erupts! The team tries to escape, but they can't outrun the lava and all are killed. One guy even accidentally steps back into a pit of lava, which doesn't seem possible (how hot is lava, it's not like it can just creep up on you from behind without you noticing, right?). The CGI effects for the volcano and the lava are not so bad as to make you want to scream, but cheap-looking enough where you wonder if the cut-rate Bulgarian company they hired was still using Windows95.


Death by lava!

Off now to "Mount Raven University" in beautiful Rochester, New York (ha!) to meet Doctor Peter Shepherd, our film's hero. Shepherd is a well-known vulcanologist and overall smartyhead. Of course, he has a busted marriage and puts in 75 hour weeks at the lab, because, you know, god forbid a scientist has a stable homelife and a healthy perspective on what's important. Shepherd is played by Xander Berkeley, who until this moment I thought was a fictional character from Buffy (he's actually a real live human being, go figure).


Shepherd is forming a small team of grad students to go to Iceland during spring break to check out a different volcano from the one that blew earlier (huh?). The team is a mix of different seismology-related majors, three guys and one girl. The guys are all cookie-cutter frat boys with goatees and gelled hair, spending their parents' money on performance fleece outwear and iPods.

Frat boys, names not necessary, trust me.

The girl is a Jennifer Garner-lookalike named Briana with an impressive set, academic credentials. She's way out of their league, but that doesn't stop the frat boys from flailing uselessly at her with douchebag come-on lines and offers to study for late-night quizzes. Oddly (for real life, but not for Hollywood), she seems to have her eye on the grizzled Shepherd, a man twice her age with "expelled for improper student/teacher conduct" written all over him. She's played by Amy Jo Johnson (who?). [Editor Pam: She was the Pink Power Ranger. There's a famous actress in this movie!]

Briana, who often looks fifteen years older if the set
lighting catches her wrong.

So they pile into their chartered Gulfstream private jet and...wait, a private jet for a simple spring break school trip? Geez, Mount Raven's blowing through that endowment pretty quick, eh? Of course, this is just continuing a long tradition of movie scientists having seemingly unlimited financial resources to fund their pet projects or stock their basement labs with bubbling beakers and talking chimpanzees. Did you know the average salary of a vulcanologist is just $57,000? That's less than a union garbage man in Chicago.

At a state school they'd be looking at coach seats on a Delta 707 after a
ten hour layover at Hartsfield.

At the volcano now and we see them doing the exciting work of vulcanologists (which apparently involves scientific machines and laptop computers with no obvious power sources). They do some tests on the rocks, some tests on the soil, some tests on the temperature, and the poor untrained actors sway with genuine fear on the ends of their ropes, clearly having just five minutes of instruction on how to rappel from some drunken Ukrainian crewmember right before the cameras rolled. They also find an anemone fossil, which supposedly proves Shepherd's heretical theory that the volcano is older than thought. So, they know the age of the volcano from just from seeing a fossil in the loose scree at the lip of a geologically active crater? Do they have any clue how fossils are formed or how strategraphy works?

Shepherd seems to have brought along a Cuisinart for some
reason. Maybe it's a Salad Shooter, I always wanted one of those.

The volcano, which had been dormant for 700 years, picks this exact second to blow its top and the lava starts flowing. Shepherd and the kids run like hell, ascending up the ropes and freaking out a lot. Amazingly, a rescue helicopter gets there in under five minutes (not possible unless it was already hovering nearby on stand-by) and they all escape by the skin of their teeth as the lava flows down the mountain, washing over their campsite (ouch, Mount Raven is going to need to see their expense accounts).

Running for dear life towards the chopper while
Mauna Kea is photoshopped into the background.

Oh that is so not the inside of a helicopter. Seriously,
how hard would it be to just film inside a hangered helicopter and foley in
some whup-whup sounds in post?

On the flight home they/we hear that the eruption killed 3,600 Icelanders and darkened the skies with ash. This cataclysmic event is then promptly forgotten (hey, we have short attention spans and seriously, who cares what happens to Iceland, isn't that where Hagar the Horrible lives?). Briana also puts some googly-eyes on Shepherd, but he's still bitter from being separated from his wife and seems oblivious to her flirtations. Of course, he did just barely escape with his life and witnessed a killer volcano up close and personal, so maybe he's just not in the mood.

Nice little moment here.

Shepherd goes to talk to Oscar, his mentor, former professor, and the oh-so typical Ostracized Fringe Rebel Brilliant Scientist who just so happens to have the key to the planet's survival there in his notes. Oscar just quit his day job at the US Geological Survey over differences in opinion and is now semi-retired and apparently living in a shack in the Tetons or someplace. He goes off on a long tangent about how the USGS is full of evil dolts who suppressed his research and are endangering the world with their money-grubbing ignorance. These disaster movies often paint some innocuous middle-of-the-pack Guv'mint agency like this as vastly more powerful and influential than they really are. It's like when the world is confronted by an unavoidable asteroid/megaquake/alien invasion/Old Testament plague/blackmailing mistress/atomic war, the first thing the President says is, "Jesus! What the...? Crap! Someone get the USGS/EPA/NEA/Amtrak/Office of National Drug Control Policy on the phone, quick, they'll know what to do!". Godzilla movies are the worst offenders, there's always some "National Science Council" thingie that has more power than the entire Japanese government/military. It must be the confluence of all those lab coats and slide rules, causes some sort of alternate reality rip in the fabric of the universe.


Oscar's theory is called "Exodus", which says that the earth's molten core is going to burst out of the ground soon in an extinction-level mass of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes (dumdumdum!). Don't even try and overthink the actual geophysical science of this theory, just know Mother Earth has a bad, bad case of indigestion from that chorizo enchilada she got down at the lunch truck and it's coming out of her one way or the other.

A true sign of scientific greatness is a messy wall filled with
post-its and newspaper clippings and a table filled with glass jars of mysterious
substances (or is that a sign of a serial killer?).

Oscar is going to Mount Fuji in Japan, he's sure it's next to blow and he wants to die "on the frontlines". Going with him is a redheaded woman a third his age whose exact relationship is never stated (nurse or lover?). All hot, size 2 young women are insatiably attracted to wheelchair-bound balding former civil servants, right? Of course, if his nurse was a 60-year old overweight Honduran woman with a mustache it would make for rotten theater.

The nurse loads him up. Note the cardboard Wyoming
license plates and the camera crew reflected in the paintwork.

Shepherd takes his plan to the Guv'mint now, speaking before a group of suits at the Central Intelligence Agency (huh?). He paints a tragically dire picture of what will come in the days ahead, but doesn't really have much in the way of hard data to back it up. But look at him there with his disheveled hair and his three-day stubble, he MUST be right because he's so damned serious that he doesn't even have time to look presentable when addressing the Guv'mint. Again, why the CIA, are they really the ones to talk to about this? This movie was filmed in Eastern Europe, remember, so do the Bulgarians really think the CIA is in charge of America? Some holdover Stalinist brainwashing, perhaps?

Meeting with the CIA.

Also at this meeting is the head of the US Geological Survey, a former colleague of Shepherd's and now his sworn enemy (yawn...). The USGS boss is a dick, plain and simple. He's a blustery overbearing know-it-all who refuses to even entertain the possibility that not everything he says is right and you suck ass (no, no, no, not Shepherd, the USGS head, though I can see why you were confused). Typical of these anti-establishment movies, you know, the same ones that take massive government tax breaks and federal film grant funds, the USGS Dick is the Face of the Guv'mint and therefore incapable of seeing anything past his own ballooning ego and the (alleged) power of his office. Just once in these movies I'd like to see a highly-placed government official who wasn't a greedy, amoral bastard bent on fiddling while City X burns.

USGS Dick.

Despite all this penis-waving, the CIA actually seems somewhat interested in a potential threat to our planet, which they should be, they seem to put a lot of effort into watching my email account for assassination threats, so you should expect them to show some concern over something that might end life as we know it. But, for some reason, the CIA decides to give the matter over to the USGS Dick where it will surely be buried under a mountain of red tape (because, you know, he's a dick). And Shepherd just leaves it at that, with a, "Shucks, well, I tried, oh well." Soooo...the ONLY people in the entire scientific community qualified to check his data are at the USGS? They have every single vulcanologist/seismologist/geochemist in the world on their payroll? Really? Seeing as how the planet's survival is at stake, Shepherd should really screw professional courtesy and email everyone he can his entire data set; the media, other vulcanologists, deans of every science department at every university on the globe, the ladies on The View, heads of state at every level, even random strangers he met on myspace, any way possible to get the word out as quickly as he can. He could even go down to Kinkos and make copies of his research papers and mail them off, who cares about postage rates when the earth is going to melt soon.

Shepherd talking with the USGS Dick.

Shepherd and his kids (who have totally drunk the kool-aid and are now willing to follow him anywhere at any expense) plan another trip to Peru to check on some more possible volcano action. Where the money comes from is a question as he's now asked his employers to fully fund two long trips in one week. Is the seismology department full of rockstars there? Don't they have a football team that needs some new uniforms instead?

Someone tell me where this building really is.

Meanwhile, Oscar has arrived in Japan and rented a traditional Japanese house (where did they find that in Bulgaria?) complete with koi pond and a cute assistant in a kimono (independently wealthy vulcanologist, huh, go figure). He reflects on his life and legacy for a while and does his best Professor X impression to impress the ladies. As predicted, Mount Fuji blows its top, devastating much of central Japan. Oscar gets swamped under, fulfilling his death wish to die with his volcano-stomping boots on. His redheaded nurse, however, seems to have other ideas about the best way to die (for her, perhaps of old age) but it's too late to escape. We later learn that hundreds of thousands are dead in Japan, plus the resultant tsunamis have flooded a lot of China's coastline (isn't Fuji on the east coast, how does that work again?). Of course, Oscar was in possession of hard data showing conclusively that Fuji was going to blow but he just sat on it and didn't make any effort to warn anyone. Sure, 99.999% of people would have laughed him off as a lunatic, but even if ten people took his warning to heart and escaped in time, wouldn't that be worth it?

One last creepy old guy hug just milliseconds before
a wall of super-heated ash does them in.

Throughout this movie we get several fairly good
images from a satellite's perspective.

While that was happening, Shepherd and his kids are now in Peru, having flown down here to do some more research. Oscar calls Shepherd from Japan a minute before being toasted and leaves him a cryptic famous-last-words voicemail. Shepherd takes this all in stride (and the old man is never mentioned again) and then has a long talk over pilsners with Briana about loves, both lost and found. Much to my surprise, being an avid b-movie watcher, any sort of forbidden romance between the world-weary Shepherd and the overly-trusting Briana fizzles out after this scene. That they didn't end up in a drunken, stomach-turning slobbery snog might be the most surprising thing about this movie.

Inebriated co-ed, notice how she holds her pinky up.

Off across the border now to a Colombian mine (why fly into Peru, Bogota has a nice airport). Arriving in their crappy Land Rover the intrepid volcano explorers find it closed and abandoned except for one old man with a gun who is either a squatter or a security guard who really needs a cost-of-living raise. The old man settles down after Shepherd speaks to him in his own obscure Colombia dialect (sure…) and he tells then that the mine was abandoned after the diggers stumbled across some lava. Got to keep moving, only a 90 minute movie, so quickly they find a "lava lake" down in the mine and have to run like hell when the lava starts dripping from the ceiling. One dude doesn't make it, fried like baclava, while another barely reaches the surface with some nasty burns. A couple of other reviewers pounded this scene for having "lava tubes" with flat floors and interior lights, but I saw it more as the miners were co-opting existing, millennia-old lava tubes (why dig a tunnel when there's already one there?). Either that or a colony of Horta live down here. At a Colombia hospital (though one with signs written in Bulgarian...), Shepherd laments the loss of one of his students, but he knows he died doing important work (well, sorta, in the final wash, nothing they learned here in South America amounts to a hill of beans in the big picture). Good thing the world is coming to an end, because I can't imagine that he'd keep his tenure after recklessly endangering his students like that. We are now down to just Shepherd, Briana, and one last Frat Boy (now named thus).

Ah, so that's where Blagojevich disappeared to.

In the tubes, the lava flows reddish orange with Earth's fury.

Meanwhile the world is exploding. Italy, the Pacific Rim, Canada, all around the globe fault lines are shaking and volcanoes are booming. Shepherd's (soon to be ex-) wife happens to be a park ranger at Yellowstone, one of the most volcanically active places on the planet. He calls her to both warn her about the End being Nigh and all that, and also to offer a halting, pathetic apology for being such a tool for the last three years. She's not biting right then, but you can just tell (yawn...) that the embers of their once-fiery love are still smoldering within her heart. At work the next day, she goes around to campers trying to warn them about the potential for disaster in Yellowstone (including one tent that is a-rockin', coitus interruptus, indeed). And she's right as Old Faithful starts shooting out magma and the forest catches on fire!

Great shot of exploding lava reflected in a truck window,
might be the best visual in the entire movie IMHO.

If you don't find this funny, get the hell off my website.

Back in Colombia, Shepherd learns that the USGS Dick took all his files from Mount Raven's servers (he can do that, because he's with the Guv'mint and he's here to help). Shepherd calls in a favor with an old friend on the President's staff, because, you know, all famous vulcanologists are so well-connected with the highest levels of government. Hey, here's a fun thing to do, grab a piece of paper and a pencil and write down the names of all the famous vulcanologists you know. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Thought so.

Anyway, Rockstar Scientist Shepherd and his two flakey kids get right off the plane and are immediately ushered into the middle of a staff meeting with the POTUS in the White House war room (well, just a redress of the CIA room from before, with a different seal on the wall). The USGS Dick is here, trying desperately to convince the President that everything is hunky-dory and he needs a better company car. Shepherd takes over the meeting (while the prez just sits there meekly) and smacks the USGS Dick down with the full force of his awesomeness.

President Andy Rooney is concerned about who will
vote for him if everyone is dead.

Shepherd explains to the befuddled president that it's going to get worse, a blanket of ash will cover the planet and usher in a new Ice Age. He has a daring plan, however, to release pressure from under the oceans and hopefully stop the lava from flowing. He wants to use subs to fire nuclear-tipped torpedoes at various points down in sub-oceanic trenches, which just sounds like a dandy idea. The President asks all the dumbass questions the audience needs to know, coming across as a country bumpkin with just a basic rudimentary knowledge of all that thar sciency stuff. You see this a lot in movies, the idea that the President of the United States is totally clueless about whatever disaster/threat/danger is currently coming/here/looming. By and large, presidents are pretty smart and on top of things and they know what a volcano is and that there are a lot of them and if they all blow at once it's going to suck. Name me a stupid president, seriously. Clinton? Rhodes scholar. Carter? Nuclear engineer. Eisenhower? Won a damn world war. Teddy Roosevelt? Once punched an elephant.

They somehow came up with these graphics in ten
seconds of tapping on a computer, amazing.

The President rubber stamps Shepherd's plan 110%, green-lighting a man who he just met an hour ago and who clearly hasn't had a shower in two days, giving him complete operational control of the entire US submarine fleet and launch authorization for nuclear weapons based solely on a ten minute powerpoint presentation. Shepherd and his kids are taken immediately to "Navy Headquarters", which is the same set we've seen twice already just with anchors and ships on the monitors. There they turn over their entire ultra sophisticated and top secret classified computer system to the our heroes without any more security vetting than giving them shiny name badges to clip on their shirts.

This guy just gave up half of America's national security
secrets to a Division III college professor and two smelly grad
students. And why does his class A uniform look like a bad suit
from Dillards with some mail-order medals pinned on?

While in our modern age of technology we could have Shepherd sit here in Washington at a computer and remotely direct a bunch of nameless extras to implement his plan, that would make for a pretty lousy movie. So we have to get Shepherd and the Frat Boy actually down onto submarines for some first-hand action. The Frat Boy will take the Atlantic side of the operation while Shepherd handles the Pacific. A helicopter choppers out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and drops a wet-suited Shepherd into the water where some SEALs haul him down to the submerged sub. Dramatic, yes, but totally retarded. Shepherd alone (grrr...) has the key to the survival of the planet, you'd think the least they could have done is surfaced and let him winch down nice and dry (actually you can land a small helo like this one on the afterdeck of a sub this big, but only in calm seas).

Good looking Seahawk, even if it's the same rendered
CGI model as we saw before in Iceland.

The submarine he reaches is the USS Hyperion, a fake name but the CGI model is an Ohio class boomer. They head down into the Marianas Trench where Shepherd says the target areas are (no way, you know how deep that is, even an Alfa would be crushed like a beer can down that deep). All the world's subs are involved, coming together to form a task force for the survival of all nations. On Shepherd's orders, they all start firing off torpedoes. Boom! Whoosh! Ka-Blooey! The sound to all this action fades way down as a voice-over from the President tells us that "this is our greatest day, today we will save our species" blahblahblah, I heard all this before in Independence Day.

On the sub, Shepherd chats with the Captain. Check
that US flag patch, looks like it was taken straight from the K-mart shopping bag and
stuck on there with a hot-glue gun.

The sub fleet, kinda hard to see, but it's there.

Back in DC, Briana, despite being just a geochemist grad student who all movie long has done very little of practical use but look cute and state the obvious, is now in charge of liaison between submarine fleets.

Ha, and her parents said her major was worthless, if
they could only see her now.

In the Atlantic, the Frat Boy's sub is the USS Reprisal, the same CGI model as the Hyperion but with a different number on the sail. Again, and I promise this is the last I'll speak of it, a 22-year old grad student at a small college with an obscure earth sciences major and a diamond stud earring is given command of a ballistic missile submarine, operational control over an assembled multinational fleet of submarines, and full authority to fire nuclear weapons, when just three (three!) days ago he was chasing girls on campus and, by his own admission, copying pirated porn DVDs in his dorm room to pay for beer money? When I was 22 I barely had control of my own penis.

Frat Boy lives the dream.

In the Pacific, Shepherd's sub starts careening through the undersea canyon like Luke's X-Wing through the Death Star's trench, twisting and turning as tremors shake rocks down at them and lava vents all around them like the worst game of Wackamole ever. The sub must be made of Adamantium because it's able to bounce off rocky walls and shrug off glancing hits by falling boulders without suffering any hull breaches that would cause rapid pressure loss and a squishy death. As each target area comes up, they shoot off their torpedoes, which explode in too-small underwater explosions.

The helmsman watches stock footage of some
National Geographic Nova special on sub-oceanic vents.

Why do they need to be so close again, why do they need to be zooming through this trench like they are playing Stargate Defender? Those torpedoes (presumably Mark 48s on those 726s) have a range of over 20 miles, they could really just lurk far out of the danger zone and pop them off with the same exact accuracy. And they'd avoid the possible (though not seen) risk of being caught in the pressure bulb of the exploding nuclear warheads. Not that you care, but did you know that in the post-Cold War era few if any tactical nuke warheads for torpedoes are carried on US subs anymore. Those load-outs are kept locked-up tight at ports, necessitating a lengthy stay quayside to have them onboard.

A ton of quick computer visuals all through this sequence.
I reduced it too much, but down in the left corner is some
gobbledygook about the desktop's operating system, nothing to do
with torpedoes at all. They do still run Windows95 in Bulgaria!

Back in the Atlantic, the Reprisal is smacked by a chunk of falling rock and is sunk. The Frat Boy dies a dramatic death, rushing around the crippled submarine trying to save it while highly-trained sailors scream and panic like schoolgirls as the water rushes in. So you have a hole in the bow, seal off those compartments and blow the emergency ballasts, there are procedures for this sort of thing, there's a reason why these boats cost so much money, you know.

At some point in the editing process, someone with
a studio checkbook was concerned that the audience wouldn't
realize that the Reprisal was an American submarine, so...

Defying all logic, Shepherd's plan works! Well, really, if you think about it, it wasn't Shepherd's plan at all, it was Oscar's plan, taken directly from his research notes that he gave to Shepherd before he went off to die. I'm not sure exactly what, if any, Shepherd added to this research, certainly nothing we saw onscreen. Anyway, the pressure is relieved, the magma subsides, and Mother Nature feels much better, thank you very much. But, of course, behind her she leaves a world forever changed, and not just the obvious geophysical changes from quakes and volcanoes, but the globe-circling ash cloud that will crush agricultural production for a generation and rend the very fabric of our civilization.

It's all better now, nothing to see here, move along.

The stinger is Shepherd back with his perky, curly-haired wife in happy wedded bliss. However, he did take a high-stress job with USGS (the Dick's job, no less), and he's got a killer signing schedule for his new book, Volcanoes: Really Big Explodey Things and the Men Who Love Them, so he's once again looking at long hours and punishing commutes, which is why they separated in the first place. She's so going to divorce his ass in a year, but now his halved net assets will be more than a futon and a box of muddy boots.

He should have made a go at Briana, she was hot.

Written in October 2009 by Nathan Decker.

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