Joe versus the Volcano

Joe versus the Volcano (1990)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan
Extras: Featurette, Music Video, Trailer, Talent Files

In most modern movies the driving force seems to be to make things appear as realistic as possible. With the advent of CGI it’s now possible to make even the most otherworldly of settings look lifelike. Very few things are left to the viewer’s imagination as even the most abstract of environments are now fully fleshed out on screen.

But things weren’t always that way. There was a time when moviegoers didn’t expect to see the real world replicated on the silver screen. In fact, the very reason for going to the movies was to escape into a fantasy world for a few precious hours. The classic musicals of the 1950s and 1960s weren’t ashamed of their flimsy props, often exaggerated storylines, and off-the-wall characters. And audiences certainly didn’t seem to mind them either.

But with the move toward the more naturalist cinema of the 1970s audiences began to expect even their sci-fi films to be firmly grounded in pseudo-reality. The musicals and other now-outdated film forms quickly fell into disfavor or were relegated to the world of animation where the imagination was still allowed free reign.

Every so often a throw-back film appears on the scene to remind us of those long-lost days. This past year we were treated to the fairy-tale musical world of "Moulin Rouge." In 1990, a little film entitled "Joe Versus the Volcano" arrived with no fanfare and proceeded to befuddle most audiences while at the same time capturing the hearts of those able to just let themselves fall victim to its magic. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, this modern day fairytale happily harkens back to that golden age of cinema.

Tom Hanks stars as Joe Banks, an unhappy hypochondriac working in an awful office job in a rectal probe factory that looks like a cross between a mental ward and Dante’s hell. One day he is diagnosed with a terminal case of "brain cloud" and the news of his impending demise inspires him to quit his job and try living what little life he has left to the fullest.

But the lack of funds puts a damper on any wild notions until the mysterious Mr. Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) appears with an offer Joe simply can’t refuse. It seems that the South Pacific island of Waponi Wu contains a rare substance needed for building superconductors but the natives won’t hand over the rights unless a sacrifice is made to their volcano god. The sacrifice requires that a human jump in of his own free will every hundred years and that dire date is fast approaching. The Waponis have grown too soft to volunteer one of their own so Joe is offered a short life filled with riches in exchange for making that one final leap. Having nothing to lose and a few weeks of frolic to gain, Joe quickly agrees to the terms.

On his way west Joe meets up with Graynamore’s daughter Angelica (Meg Ryan — in one of three roles) for a short L.A. jaunt before boarding a private sailing yacht for the final trip to the island. The boat is skippered by Graynamore’s other daughter, Patricia (Meg Ryan again), who soon falls in love with Joe.

Things really take a turn for the surreal when the boat sinks in a storm and Joe and Patricia take refuge on a raft made from Joe’s four steamer trunks. Eventually they wash up on Waponi Wu where they are wined and dined by the tribal chief (Abe Vigoda) before Joe must make that one final, fateful decision.

"Joe Versus the Volcano" is billed as being a modern fable and that’s exactly what it is. The underlying theme is the quest to live a good and fruitful life without regret or fear. Joe goes full circle in his transformation from a scared cubicle-jockey into a happy, content, and well-rounded person. Along the way he encounters characters who serve as archetypes defining the various stages of the human condition and who help him along in his voyage of self discovery.

Supporting this fable is a wonderfully whimsical visual style that serves to remind the audience that this is not the real world. A large blue moon, reappearing lightning bolts, and islanders festooned with orange soda cans are just this side of Terry Gilliam on the wacky scale but these design choices are as much a part of the tale as the script and truly help to convey the story.

Presented in 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, "Joe Versus the Volcano" looks very good indeed on DVD. The overall image is slightly soft but not annoyingly so. Colors are wonderfully vibrant and stable during even the gaudiest of scenes while black levels are more than adequate if not quite up to modern standards. Only some very minor edge enhancement and slight film grain mars what is otherwise a very solid presentation.

Audio comes in an English <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix> as well as English, French, and Japanese DD 2.0 Surround mixes. While the soundtrack is well-balanced it just isn’t all that lively. Dynamic range is constrained with no noticeable deep bass and a sometimes shrill high end. Surrounds are used only minimally for musical cues and the odd sound effect. This is a very front-loaded mix and, while it sounds fine, it just doesn’t take full advantage of the capabilities of a 5.1 soundtrack. The only time it comes to life is during the handful of scenes featuring vintage pop songs. These musical passages swell up to engulf the listener and serve as a reminder of what the rest of the soundtrack is missing.

While not a special edition by any means, the disc does contain a few meager extras. First up is 4-minute featurette that is very light on any real details and very heavy on promotional fluff. Also included are the film’s theatrical trailer, talent files, and the music video for Eric Burdon’s "Sixteen Tons." Like I said, not much here.

"Joe Versus the Volcano" is one of those films that people either love or hate. Losing yourself in a movie like this requires a conscious effort to jettison the baggage of the real world and accept the film’s very skewed reality on its own terms. Very few modern movies ask for such an act of surrender so viewers these days are ill equipped to allow themselves to fall victim to this brand of movie magic.

It isn’t a perfect movie by any means but "Joe Versus the Volcano" is filled with enough wit and warmth to overcome any of its shortcomings. Warner’s new DVD release offers up the film with very good video, adequate audio, and a smattering of bonus features. While a true special edition would have been nice, fans of the movie should be pleased with the beautiful <$PS,widescreen> presentation of their oft-maligned favorite. While "Joe Versus the Volcano" is most certainly not for everyone, die-hard romantics and daydreamers should give this clever little film a chance as it packs more of that aforementioned movie magic than a whole summer full of Hollywood blockbusters.