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‘Volcano’ Not Based On Fact; It’s Just Entertainment

Kenneth Reich Los Angeles Times

Universal Pictures claimed scientific validity for its volcano movie, “Dante’s Peak,” opening itself to endless expert criticism. Twentieth Century Fox is not quite making the same mistake with its “Volcano,” opening Friday.

“The Coast Is Toast” is the movie’s motto, and its story of a volcanic eruption in the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles is part thrilling and part grisly.

But, basically, as the president of the Fox division that made the movie acknowledged in an interview, the likelihood of it actually happening is extremely remote.

“I do think this movie is for fun and entertainment, and certainly not something we think will happen tomorrow,” said Laura Ziskin of Fox 2000 Pictures. “We are not claiming this is scientific fact. It is as likely as the dinosaurs being brought back to life.”

But she could not resist adding, “I am a native Angeleno. … This is a town that continues to surprise.”

“Volcano’s” science adviser, Rick Hazlett, professor of geology at Pomona College, was more categorical.

“It is by all geological reason impossible for us to expect an eruption in the Los Angeles area any time in the near geological future, which is to say a few million years,” he said.

Such details as the lava occasionally having to flow uphill if it were actually following the streets mentioned in the movie, “at first really, really bothered me,” Hazlett said. “But I bit my lip and said, ‘Hey, this is entertainment.’

“And I remembered that one of the things that inspired me to become a volcanologist was seeing the movie ‘Fantasia’ when I was a little kid. By no stretch of the imagination is the lava depicted in that film realistic, but by golly that film got me interested and led me to my career.”

An impromptu poll outside a Los Angeles screening of the new movie found about half those interviewed saying they thought something like the film’s eruption could happen in Los Angeles, and the younger they were, the more they seemed to think so.

Just for the record, volcanologist Stan Williams of Arizona State University made these main scientific points:

The methane and other gases visibly boiling up in the La Brea tar pits and routinely seen every day by Angelenos and tourists alike are the result not of volcanic processes but of the subterranean decay of organic material.

There have been countless episodes of volcanic activity near Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra over hundreds of thousands of years, and there are volcanic cones within the city limits of Portland. But Los Angeles is not a locale of any such activity.

The movie displays “a complete absence of scale.” The firetrucks and freeway barriers shown stopping the lava in its tracks would be completely unable to do so, assuming a volcanic eruption continued.

Some scientists point out that on occasion lava has been diverted, but only with much more powerful weapons and the expenditure of millions of dollars.

In 1973, for example, a volcano near Heimaey, Iceland, sent lava toward the town. It halted after large ships equipped with powerful pumps sprayed millions of gallons of seawater over it. But some analysts believe this was successful only because the volcanic eruption was tailing off.

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