This weekend schlock-master Paul WS Anderson (Resident Evil, Death Race) is bringing us his latest over the top action extravaganza, a story about adventure and romance set against the backdrop of maybe the most famous volcanic eruption in history, Pompeii. If you watch the trailer, it seems like the movie’s going to be pretty bad, but bad in that way that you’re going to end up watching and enjoying it regardless. Or maybe that’s just my crushes on Emily Browning and Kit Harington talking.
Pompeii won’t be the first time a couple of attractive young kids have fallen in love against the backdrop of a volcano decimating an entire group of people, however. Back in 1990, writer/director John Patrick Shanley took a couple of actors who hardcore movie fans may have heard of, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and used their one-of-a-kind chemistry to tell a unique tale that was part romance, part comedy, part adventure, and part genocidal disaster movie where an entire race of orange soda-loving Polynesian Jews called the Waponis got decimated by the eruption of a volcano known as The Big Woo.
The movie was called Joe Versus the Volcano, and despite everything it has to offer, it still hasn’t received a high definition release of any sort.
Before we go off on a rant about why we need a blu-ray release of Joe Versus the Volcano, maybe it’s important to explain why it hasn’t gotten one. Though Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan became the world’s favorite couple after they starred together in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, at the time of Joe Versus the Volcano’s release they weren’t yet a commodity. Hanks had hit it big with Big just before, and Ryan had just seen similar success with When Harry Met Sally, but they had yet to repeat on their success as blockbuster leads, and they weren’t quite cemented as A-list players. And once Joe Versus the Volcano got savaged by critics and didn’t do anything to set the box office on fire, it started to look like maybe they were never going to be. Of course, they soon were, but the last 24 years hasn’t been quite so kind to the first movie they starred in together. It seems like after its initial financial and critical failure, Joe Versus the Volcano was thrown on the scrap heap to be near-forgotten forever.
While it does have a smattering of support among the film geek community, and it did make the jump from VHS to DVD, it hasn’t seen near the reversal in opinion and building up of support that another Tom Hanks vehicle from the era, The ‘burbs, has. When it was first released, The ‘burbs was similarly reviled, but over time it’s come to be appreciated by more and more people, to the point where it’s now pretty much considered a full-on cult classic, and it’s finally set to get a June, 23 blu-ray release from UK-based producer of high-end, high-def releases, Arrow Video.
So maybe we have failed as film geeks here, because even though Joe Versus the Volcano is just a tiny notch below the divine perfection of The ‘burbs, it’s still a consistently hilarious, affectingly romantic, endlessly fun, and—most importantly—hypnotically gorgeous to look at example of experimental filmmaking, which has all the hallmarks of something that should be preserved and promoted as the perfect example of why the term “cult classic” has come to mean so much over the past few decades. It turns out we haven’t been talking about this movie nearly enough.
Which is nuts, because it’s so full of the types of stuff we love. It features Tom Hanks playing a character who’s a pale, depressed, pile of neuroses and hypochondria at the beginning of the film, and who develops over the course of its events to become a tanned, self-actualized adventurer who’s living on the absolute fringe of what it means to explore the world and live life to its fullest. It’s got a pre-plastic-surgery-ruined Meg Ryan being adorable and showing off by doing silly voices and playing three different characters who are all charming and interesting in different ways. And, visually, it’s just a smorgasbord of fairy tale imagery, warm color palettes, and top-notch cinematography. The fact that Shanley has only directed this and Doubt is basically a crime against humanity. Both of his movies are so unique, interesting, and expertly crafted that we should be beating down the guy’s door and begging him to take a break from the stage to bring us a couple more moving pictures.
Just look at all of the little details that it takes an eagle-eye and multiple re-watches to pick out in this movie. You’ve got the lightning logo that’s hidden everywhere throughout, the fact that all of the windows in New York City are lit with solid primary colors (which hints at an infinite amount of further fairy tales just out of our sight), the Chinese lanterns on the yacht echoing the city’s windows with its colors, the old-timey sailor standing under the street light, the detailing on the ridiculous rubber shark Hanks pulls out of the water, the minuscule majesty of the Waponi Woo model sinking into the ocean, and—of course—the majestic glow of the gigantic moon as a deranged Hanks confronts his maker out on the ocean. All of these things would benefit immensely from a brand new transfer. Things we’ve never seen before might even be revealed.
Joe Versus the Volcano is a movie that puts all of its focus on the human spirit, and how it can either blossom or wilt depending on the environment it’s put in. It speaks to the yearning inside all of us to break out of the drudgery and ugliness of our everyday lives in order to seek out something more beautiful and more fulfilling. Plus, the whole thing is building to a moment where a man is going to have to commit suicide, so there’s a constant tension that pulls you through even the most silly asides. This is a movie that pretty much anyone with even the remotest sense of whimsy could relate to and like, if they’d just be given another opportunity to give it a new look with new eyes.
If a high-end blu-ray release of Joe Versus the Volcano was announced, where care was taken with the transfer and a little bit of effort was put into producing special features for it, I’ve no doubt that the community of movie enthusiasts on the Internet would rise up and support it. Perhaps that’s just the bold move we need to motivate everyone to give this one another watch, take in what a special movie it really is, and start talking the ears off of the norms about how there’s a great, lost Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romance that they probably haven’t seen before. If it can happen for The ‘burbs, there’s no reason it can’t happen for this one.
If those last ten minutes or so of Captain Phillips taught us anything last year, it’s that Hanks is always going to be one of the most vital and talented actors of this era, even though we tend to forget about him every once in a while. Probably it’s about time that we make sure every great thing he’s done gets the attention it needs to live on through history, because future generations are counting on us to make sure that they don’t get raised as ignorant wretches. So, what do you say, movie industry? Who’s got the moxie to get the rights to this one and do something special with it?