When does a movie not know it’s a cult classic? When it’s called Joe Versus the Volcano. It’s certainly no Grave of the Fireflies, but there are plenty of emotions and intentions underneath its surface to make it a cult classic.
Tom Hanks plays sad sack office drone Joe, who has seemingly traded in a life fully lived for an existence of as-safe-as-possible, with his hypochondria becoming the only way his soul can express its turmoil. Diagnosed with terminal “brain cloud,” Joe accepts a billionaire’s offer to sacrifice himself on behalf of some volcano-worshipping islanders. Meg Ryan plays three roles, each a way-stations on Joe’s journey (co-worker, trust-funder, adventurer), that help him realize his true self just in time to end his life.
While those of us who grew up in the 80s and hit our stride in the 90s certainly remember this Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film, which was their first of many together, the younger generation of folks probably don’t know what the fuss is all about. If I’m being truthful about Joe Versus the Volcano, the entire concept of the film is a bit shallow, empty and hokey at best. A man is diagnosed with a ‘Brain Cloud’, which he doesn’t get a second opinion about (that is actually a joke in the film) and is somehow inspired in a 15-minute meeting with a total stranger to fling himself into an active volcano to appease a god that is worshipped by soda drinking natives. Gosh, that would have been some pitch. As it stands, from afar, the entire premise of the film is ridiculous. It’s simple in structure.
Having said that, this film is just engulfed with symbolism out the wazoo, which is easy to miss if you’re not truly listening to what each character along Joe’s journey is trying to push out to Joe, as well as to the audience. For example, Joe’s limo driver at the beginning of his fateful journey, after he strikes a deal to become a sacrifice, Marshall (played by a very talented man named Ossie Davis), discusses Joe’s desired attire, which Joe doesn’t know. Irritated, Marshall questions what sort of man can’t define himself enough to pick out his clothing style, thus planting the seed that Joe needs to find himself before he can end himself. The back and forth between Joe and Marshall, even in its brief time, is a defining moment to the story, as it spring boards Joe from lost soul to completion by the time he gets to the island where he is to make his leap. Moments like this prove that this screenplay, which was shunned as anything more than childish, is quite intelligent. Each moment after Joe’s interaction with Marshall becomes an additional cog in Joe’s persona machine that builds up towards his perceived demise.
The writing is crafted like a greek tragedy, where you’re just one soothsayer away from uncovering what is to happen to our protagonist during his plight. It’s carefully crafted and meticulously built on memorable characters to keep Joe’s adventure moving forward. Even Meg Ryan’s trio of different characters, as brief as they might live in the story, offer up a road sign to the next point in Joe’s ultimate goal of finding who he is and what his purpose in life is to be. Meg Ryan’s DeDe shows Joe that he has to leave his home. Angelica shows Joe that he should help other people before taking his own earthly pleasures. Finally, Patricia shows Joe that he can learn to love. All of this combined is something I never realized was going on in the film when I was younger, but now that I’m older, and a somewhat seasoned veteran of movie watching, I can see how beautiful John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay truly was when it was set in motion. Believe me, folks, I don’t take writing lightly, but this was a good screenplay with some old design built into it. Even though the brief stops were underdeveloped by our film expectations, they fit the mold of a greek tragedy perfectly. Small pockets of characters that are meant to be push pieces to the protagonist, which leads them from point to point in the story.
Now, if the story wasn’t enough, the visuals of the film help to reinforce the tale. Shanley obviously knew what he wanted visually out of his words. He imagined great moments for each step of Joe’s journey and seemed to carefully craft the color scheme and lighting to reflect where Joe was in the story, as well as where Joe was in his life. For example, the drained look of the blue tint used at the beginning when Joe was working in the run down room of a factory reflected his lost nature and how he clearly didn’t stand out from the rest of the group he worked around. The light seemingly drained away his life until he was just simply waiting in his purgatory to move on. As Joe moves from that environment closer to the island in his fateful journey the blue tint is replaced by more colorful backdrops and clothing, especially during his transformation with Marshall. By the time Joe hits Los Angeles and is on a boat to the island, there is full spectacular color all around him. For example, there is nothing so clear to this point then the moon scene with Joe reaching up to the Gods. The scene is vivid, spectacular and a visual representation of Joe finally shedding the last bit of his old life away to begin anew. Even towards the end, when you know that he has to do what he came to do, even despite his internal conflict thanks to Patricia, life is at its fullest, as are the vibrant visuals around him, especially the island and its inhabitants are quite clear and gorgeous. The visuals are stunning, but are also used in parallel to the story that drives them.
Having said this, is this the best movie ever made? Certainly not, but it’s better than most people give it credit for and it is, at least in my mind, the very definition of a cult classic, even if it doesn’t know it, where there is far more details underneath its surface just waiting for people to discover it.
If you or someone in your household hasn’t had the chance to experience Joe Versus the Volcano yet, then this might be the perfect reason to snag it on Blu-ray. It’s not going to be up there with the likes of Blade Runner or The Godfather, but it is very much more than most people can see it being.
On the Blu-ray side of things, the transfer for it to HD is good for the most part. The darker shades of tint, especially at the beginning, give way to some graininess, but it’s a good transfer overall. You’ll see this once the colorfulness starts to seep into the picture. It’s an upgrade from the DVD version.
The special features are few, as you get a BTS documentary (it’s fun to see) and a music video, but not much else.