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Commentary: 'Volcano' is a better Los Angeles film than 'Crash'

A still from 1997's
A still from 1997's "Volcano," where a large Volcano erupts in the middle of Los Angeles
20th Century Fox

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"In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."

- "Crash" (2004)

Ten years ago, the movie "Crash" took home the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Academy Awards. The Los Angeles of "Crash" is segregated and inflamed. Persian, African-American, Salvadoran-Puerto Rican and White people collide violently with one another via carjackings, service interactions, a little sex, and most of all, car crashes. Having found themselves outside their bubbles, they do what we all do in unfamiliar company: deliver candid, racist sermons about the prejudices they hold to be self-evident.

Fans said "Crash" shined a light on racism while undermining PC pieties, but the movie winds up reinforcing as many stereotypes as it assaults. It has something for everyone: a racist cop if you marched for Black Lives Matter, a scary black carjacker if you sent a check to Darren Wilson. It showcases some undeniably high-wire melodramatic performances, but its ideas about how people live are both overstated and undercooked.

But that’s not to say you can’t make a great movie about race, space, transportation, and Los Angeles.

And that movie is 1997’s "Volcano", a popcorn-pushing disaster movie. No one would mistake it for a sensitive portrayal. When sexy geologist Anne Heche and plain geologist Not-Anne-Heche go spelunking under the MacArthur Park subway stop, guess who gets boiled alive?

It’s like that. A volcano rises from the Tar Pits, Tommy Lee Jones tells people what to do and saves children. Awesome enough.

There’s a subplot where black residents south of Wilshire protest as emergency personnel protect LACMA’s treasures and not their homes. Tensions rise, but angry white cops and suspicious neighbors work together and reroute the lava. After the long night, a little white boy sees them all covered in snowy volcanic ash and says: “Look at their faces; they all look the same.”

OK, it’s not Ralph Ellison. But then, check out evil developer Norman.

Norman’s building a luxury apartment tower. He hates that his doctor wife takes care of “those people.”

Norman’s like the opponents of the Crenshaw subway line, who for years claimed that burglars from East L.A. and South L.A. would use it as a getaway car for Beverly Hills robberies. In the book "Railtown," author Ethan Elkind shows how metro officials voted against the Crenshaw line because they didn’t want their crazy racist neighbors in Hancock Park airing their prejudices in public.

In "Volcano", that kind of transit racism gets a beautiful B-movie comeuppance: Tommy Lee Jones detonates Norman’s big tower, diverting the lava into Ballona Creek. Plus his wife leaves him.

So, ten years after "Crash" won its Academy Award,  Give me the choice of a Rube Goldberg prestige picture with a narrative engine fueled by coincidence and prejudice, or a brash B-movie with a surprising depth of reference to the way Angelenos actually get split up by surface streets and subway tracks? I’ll take the volcano. Plus, hey: sexy geologist.