Sunday, October 16, 2022

What a disaster: Lava come down soft and hot, you betta lava me now, or lava me not


Directed by James Goldstone
Written by Carl Foreman and Stirling Silliphant

Spoilers: moderate

Ten years and twenty-three days.  That's how long the disaster cycle of the 1970s lasted, but let's just call it a decade: it was born on March 5th, 1970, when Ross Hunter's bomb thriller Airport hit theaters, becoming one of the most financially successful movies of its day, and it took its dying breaths on March 28th, 1980, when Irwin Allen unleashed his fifth and final theatrically-released disaster film to an indifferent and hostile world, saying farewell to a genre that had never been represented before, and would never be represented again, by anyone as forcefully and prodigiously as Allen had represented it.  It bore the title When Time Ran Out..., ellipsis and all, perhaps not the most descriptive or enticing name conceivablenot, surely, as full of breathless flair as The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno or even The Swarmbut flawlessly evocative in its melancholy assessment of its own chances and its place in film history, and not even the name of the book it was based on, Gordon Thomas's The Day the World Ended, and so, we must assume, chosen by Allen and his screenwriters themselves, as their own weary admission that the fad had, at long last, run its course.

It must, after all, have been obvious to them: Warner Bros., bound by their contractual duties, reluctantly funded Allen, but one can imagine that, in light of the box office wasteland left by the disaster cinema of the foregoing year (not least by Warners' and Allen's own 1979 effort, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), their bargaining position had gained "strength," in the sense that they could recognize that there was likely very little difference in terms of profit and loss in breaking their contract, and subsequently getting sued by Allen for its value, and adhering to the contract and making another Irwin Allen bomb.  (It turned out they weren't pessimistic enough: with Allen's $20 million budget and the $3.8 million gross, they truly might have been far better off getting sued.)  In any case, Warners acquiesced to Allen's budget but only under a condition: Allen would not direct.

They had enough good cause: it wasn't unreasonable to blame the failures of The Swarm and BtPA upon Allen's insistence that he direct them himself, though if Warners' executives were clear-eyed, I doubt they thought this would actually lead to a success; they probably just wanted to punish Allen for the sin of losing them money.  Or, perhaps that's too cynical, because movie executivesI know you don't want to hear this!don't usually actually hate movies, and maybe they really had the best intentions in the world, and genuinely did just want, win or lose, their last co-production with Irwin Allen to be good, or at least better.  I will offer that, whatever their motives, it worked out: Allen, or Warners, or both, found their director in James Goldstone, and Goldstone, with no less a genre pedigree than 1977's superlative Rollercoaster, brings the kind of energy and skill that Allen was evidently incapable of achieving on his own.  Yes, it collapsed at the box office in 1980, and it has certainly never been graced with any reappraisal since (a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score says all that needs to be said on that count), so that the only cultural memory we even have of it is that it's "the last one"; but When Time Ran Out... did, against the odds, turn out to be a worthy-enough conclusion to one of the biggest trends Hollywood ever chased.

It even manages to feel valedictory in its way: besides how fitting it is that Allen, at least as a producer, proved himself to be the last survivor of his genre, it also brings back the star of Allen's biggest hit, The Towering Inferno, in Paul Newman, who also had to be flogged into fulfilling his contract, though, in a happy ending, he used his disaster money to found the sauce empire that would outlive him.  It likewise makes Irwin Allen Repertory Players out of William Holden, Red Buttons, and Ernest Borgnine (who, of course, already was); it reunites Allen with the only screenwriter who ever wrote actual good screenplays for him, Stirling Silliphant; and, in a move that salutes the whole genre beyond Allen's legacy, it even brings back into the fold Jacqueline Bisset, promoting her from "the one in Airport who doesn't want an abortion" to full-fledged co-star.

But, I know, the movie itself: I said it was "based on" The Day the World Ended, and so the credits declare over top of some Krafftian imagery of a tinfoil man striding across a volcanic hellscape, but "inspired by" or even "I guess we paid for the rights to" would've been more appropriate, as the 1969 best-seller was a period piece on the subject of the apocalyptic 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée, and Time is assuredly not any of that, except for being about a volcano.  It brings it in line with "Allen's elements," at least, completing the sets for big and small screen alike: having done water (The Poseidon Adventure and the TV movie Flood), fire (The Towering Inferno and the aptly named telefilm Fire), and air (The Swarm/Hanging By a Thread), When Time Ran Out..., as Cave-In! had before it, does earth.*  The adaptation, or whatever, was done initially by famed screenwriter Carl Foreman, though it's hard to say if any of the guy who did High NoonBridge on the River Kwai, and so on makes itself known; textually, this is a Silliphant screenplay through and through, and arguably even more formulaically "disaster movie" than his earlier films.  It is, at least, awfully hard not to make some very exact comparisons and identify this as a combination of The Towering Inferno, complete with a literal Paul Newman figure running about, aghast at the negligence of everyone around him, with The Poseidon Adventure, insofar as the actual action part is defined by a stern hero (who in this iteration is also Paul Newman) leading a small breakaway group through danger towards hoped-for safety whilst everyone who foolishly chose not to listen to him perishes.  Adding to the formula feel, but from beyond the contributions Silliphant himself had made to that formula in years past, we have a whole "exes reunite" subplot, never a big plank of the major theatrically-released disaster flicks, but, we've seen, increasingly a mainstay of Allen's TV movies.

I should probably recite the main plot, though, and so, on an unnamed Pacific island that I had assumed the entire film, until someone mentions that boat rescue would be impracticable, was an island in Hawaii where it was shot, we have a trio of stakeholders: the post-colonial scion who owns, apparently, the underlying real estate of the whole island, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus); the hotel magnate who's recently established a luxury resort here, Shelby Gilmore (Holden); and the wildcat oil prospector who has teamed up with Spangler to explore the petro-possibilities of the island, Hank Anderson (Newman).  Matters already get a little complicated given that Gilmore arrives with his secretary, Kay Kirby (Bisset), whom Gilmore hopes to wed, and she might consider it, if she were not still holding out for the one great love of her life, who just so happens to be Anderson.

We could describe the other, littler complications.  There's Spangler's affair with one of Gilmore's executives, Iolani (Barbara Carerra), under the nose of his wife, also Gilmore's beloved goddaughter, Nikki (Veronica Hamel), which would, one surmises, likewise be bad news for Iolani's fiancé and Gilmore's hotel's general manager, Brian (Edward Albert).  There's the fugitive white collar criminal Francis Fendly (Buttons) humorously pursued (and I actually mean it, it's mildly funny) by walkabout NYPD cop Tom Conti (Borgnine).  There's the heart condition slowly dissolving the union between married vaudevillians Rene and Rose Valdez (Burgess Meredith and Valentina Cortese).  There's the cockfighting tournament which we find put together by Anderson's oilman colleague Tiny Baker (Alex Karras) and married barkeeps Sam and Mona (Pat Morita and Sheila Allen, Irwin's wife, which I think is nice), and which I suspect I'm glad isn't in the movie, given Allen's history with animal cruelty, but might well have been showcased in the thirty-minute-longer producer's cut that seems to only have been available to those lucky enough (or whatever) to catch the film's television broadcasts.  But these obviously pale before the big complication: the island's volcano.  Long thought inactive and safe, it is in fact building up pressure, as Anderson determines when his oil strike almost knocks his and his men's blocks off, and as the geological team on the island led by Dr. Webster (John Considine) confirms when the volcano blows and their facility falls straight into the caldera.  Time, you might say, just ran out.

You probably picked this up, but Time is unusually dense in its soap opera; it has its secondary characters who exist solely to join Anderson in his exodus later, but an easy majority of the cast are people that know each other already, and if you drew lines between them, to map out their relationships, it'd be a real furball.  This isn't everyone's poison, but I like it, and Silliphant (and, sure, Foreman) and Goldstone take it very seriously, almost as happy to treat with these individual dramas as they are the disaster action to come.  (Goldstone, for instance, deals with Franciscus and Carrera with an entirely different visual vocabulary, establishing their character's adultery with slightly threatening-feeling voyeuristic shots, to emphasize that we're seeing something secret and perhaps unwholesome; and maybe I shouldn't be impressed by a director directing, but after two Allen-helmed theatrical features and three Georg Fenady-helmed telefilms, you bet your bippy I am.)

I'm cautiously willing to forward the claim that Newman and Bisset get the best "exes reunite" plot in any disaster film ever made**, a fairly low bar to clear, maybe, and as of 1980, it was a bar set by Sophia Loren and Richard Harris's twice-divorced lovers in The Cassandra Crossing as the best thing about a bad movie; but a romantic relationship between two characters being "actually good" isn't a bar you'd necessarily expect disaster cinema to clear.  Newman might not have wanted to do this movie, but he's still good in itI am perhaps not in love with his "Texan stance" or his vanishes-by-the-third-scene "Texan accent" (curiously, the stance outlasts the accent), but these things do show effort, and I do slightly love how he navigates Anderson initially succumbing to Spangler's and his employees' pressure to keep drilling, and how this sense of responsibility informs the rest of his performance later.  Insofar as he's asked to be the last sane man, or at least the sanest, in a disintegrating situation, he's better than solid, if maybe not outstanding; accordingly, Bisset gets the best of it by far, seizing upon a tireless pursuit that she makes a fait accompli in a good way, with a sense of intention and self-possession leavened with a sense of humor and a sense of intelligence, the latter two qualities ably supported by her sound decision not to do anything to disguise her London cadence.  Who knows what the shooting order was, but it's fun to imagine Newman and Bisset's participation tracking their characters, Newman starting off as a taciturn and flatly rude figure who doesn't even really want to be there but ultimately giving in to Bisset's invitations to loosen up and find the personality in what by definition is a purely functional character.

To spare a word for Franciscus, it's a performance that I was suspicious of, inasmuch as if he hadn't turned out to be basically-the-villain, it would have been sort of awful, occupying the first act with frequent spasms of full-tilt mania, and Goldstone encouraging him to redeploy his typically-handsome features as freakish and demonic, particularly in terms of stretching his mouth across his whole face in a smile Gwynplaine would describe as over-the-top.  But as he's less the William-Holden-in-Inferno than the Richard-Chamberlain-in-the-same, it works terrificallyhis megalomania is certainly more fun than Chamberlain's drunken implosionand it's matched with screenwriting that gives him just enough psychological rounding in his daddy issues that he doesn't feel inhuman or his inevitable fate devoid of some small tragedy.  (It helps that they don't kill just the adulterers, but the wife too, one of the few but crucial elements that feel like the old Allen, pulling this film into genuine popcorn nihilism.)  And to spare a word for the strongest member of the secondary (or even tertiary) cast, Meredith is modestly heartbreaking, and would be perhaps moreso if his subplot's conclusion wasn't so brusquely lifted from Poseidon, but he does get the coolest thing to do of anybody in the movie, thanks to a screenplay that, unexpectedly, actually was setting something up when it gave him an off-the-rack "vaudeville vet" backstory.

"The performances," fortunately, are not the best thing Time has going for it, though it's the main thing keeping the longish first phase of the movie snappy.  (Time's available cut is stunningly short for an Allen production, at 109 minutes; it's the shortest theatrical disaster film he ever made, and while I think its proportions aren't necessarily used perfectly even as it stands, and I rather doubt any expensive action scenes were amongst the cuts Warners imposed, I would be at least curious to see the film breathe, because it's never bad.)  Anyway, there is that action, teased early and extremely robustly in what is pretty objectively the film's very strongest scene, whenalmost explicitly for the purpose of giving us a strong, early action sceneAnderson, Spangler, and Dr. Webster introduce us to their volcano, descending in a heat-controlled diving bell into the volcano's mouth, which does not work out, becoming instantly a crazy hell of shock editing and escalating danger, seemingly starting at eleven but finding several further ways to crank its unbearable tension up.  It also has the best denouement to any scene, and probably the best set-up, too, thanks to the splendid production design of the geologists' fanciful super-science installation on the edge of the caldera, which is also very obviously Goldstone's favorite set given how much joyful energy he expends on exploring it and using its contours and diaroma-like construction for some really intoxicating angles and camera movements.

There are other good things to come, notably several swell helicopter stunts (again, the valediction: it's Newman's character's helicopter, and he arrives at the site of fated disaster by the same means of transportation that brought him to his tower in Inferno; Bisset enters the movie via airplane), and in particular there's a helicopter stunt in which a crazed mob of assholes is killed.  There's also a shower of ejecta that kills and maims less-deserving victims, including Borgnine's cop; and, notably, a man's children witness their father plunge off the narrow cliff Anderson has obliged him to traverse, and we peer over the side to see his broken body below.  But maybe none of it's great, and even the finale feels a little like a prefatory setpiece rather than a climactic one.  That is meant more as calibration than criticism, though: it's still a good setpiece, Goldstone doing a terrific job conjuring drawn-out, what-the-fuck-now exhaustion out of the simple elements of an old bridge and a river of lava, with the difficulty level it represents increasing with every member of the party who manages to make it across (or falls into the blazing abyss, as the case may be, and given the weakening of Allen's steely resolve in his telefilms, it's gratifying to at least see him kill some of his cast here).

It does unintentionally highlight one problem with Time, which is that for all its budget that budget is never very apparent, and it's almost incapable of being as big as it wants to be, and if it was going to destroy the hotel so lamely it definitely should have done it earlier, rather than as a postscript that you expected to be a tour de force.  I am, always, willing to meet a movie in its own era, but almost invariably, if things get too big for in-camera special effects and full-sized sets (and even these, in truth, are still more stagelike and fanciful than fully persuasive), requiring Allen and Gladstore to resort to visual effects, their film feels fully twenty years out of date and not even the expensive version of that.  It is shocking to realize that this might have shared theaters with The Empire Strikes Back.  Hell, it's shocking to realize this post-dates The Towering Inferno.  It can still be charming (the destruction of the scientists' base, for a prime example), but whenever it's represented by a composited background image, it's not even really an acceptable volcano.

But we can take all that in stride.  For all its bottom-tier reputation, Time is a satisfying end to a remarkable period, and a satisfying final effort from a filmmaker who pursued a trend long past the point that anybody who didn't love it with all their heart would have stopped.  It's a bit of a photocopy, yes; but less, I find, in ways that feel like template-filling, and far more in ways that celebrate the achievements, like 'em or lump 'em, of a decade of blockbuster cinema now gone by.

Score: 7/10

*So, what elemental scheme to impose upon Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and The Night the Bridge Fell Down?  Ummm... I got it!  Metal!
**Well, the best real "exes reunite" plot, but I am rather fond of Myrna Loy and George Brent "reuniting" to casually fuck in 1939's The Rains Came, before that film's principal romance even gets started; I'm also not, for present purposes, counting Airplane!

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