When Vesuvius erupted, the people of Pompeii stayed in their homes. How do we know that, Ken?


If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I collect disaster movies. They’re a hoot! You get the thrill of an explosive effects spectacle and you laugh at the acting, the cliches, the flawed plots. You stare in disbelief at the bad science, the pat resolutions (including, but not limited to spackling the Ozone layer with explosives, and crazy-gluing the San Andreas fault with nuclear weapons), and you eat a lot of popcorn.

But occassionally, a movie comes along where the producers have hired scientific advisors and, more importantly, actually listened to them. Movies like Deep Impact (which still features a pat ending that makes scientists tear out their hair) don’t ramp up the disaster beyond all level of reason, and they don’t offer a resolution that lets the human race off scot free.

When the BBC and the Discovery Channel got together to produce SuperVolcano, they set out to make a scientifically accurate disaster film. Not only would the audience get the thrills of big explosions and people in peril, but they’d learn something too. And thankfully, the movie doesn’t disappoint. It helps that the disaster they profile doesn’t need punching up. The show’s producers simply lay out the facts, set up to a worst case scenario and let things play out. Best of all, there is no solution to pull out of a hat. Humanity just has to weather it.

SuperVolcano builds its premise from the fact that most of Yellowstone National Park is a caldera, the crater for which is 30 miles wide and 50 miles long. It’s the latest manifestation of a hotspot that has moved across Idaho as the North American continental plate shifted west. In its current site in Yellowstone Park, it has erupted three times in the past 2.1 million years, at roughly 700,000 year intervals. These eruptions have been huge — the equivalent of 2500 Mount St. Helens going off at the same time. And while Yellowstone is unlikely to go off in our lifetime, or in a hundred lifetimes, if it were to go off tomorrow, it would have serious impacts for the world, not just the United States.

Michael Riley stars as Rick Lieberman, a vulcanologist in charge of observing the Yellowstone caldera. A cautious man, burned by a failed prediction he gave earlier in his career, he downplays the possibility of a major eruption, even as the warning signs multiply and the media panic increases (fed by his brother-in-law Ken, a bestselling author who says that a super-eruption is “overdue”).

But as the earthquakes multiply and Old Faithful stops working, Rick points out to Wendy Reiss, a director at FEMA (played by Rebecca Jenkins), that part of his caution is the fact that telling people the worst case scenario would save almost no-one, and would only increase the panic. If Yellowstone were to experience a super-eruption, eighty percent of the United States would be covered in ash; twenty percent would be rendered unusable. What would FEMA do? Does it intend to evacuate all of America?

Halfway through the movie, as expected, Yellowstone pops its cork, and the United States experiences the worst disaster in its history. Officials scramble to find ways to save the millions of people trapped by ash. As the eruption continues, fear spreads, and soon there is panic buying across the world.


The twist of SuperVolcano is that it plays itself as a docudrama from the future, with a dramatization of the event intercut with clips interviewing the characters about five years after the cataclysm. These clips provide excellent factual explanations of the climactic effects of major eruptions, and of a volcano’s many threats — including pyroclastic flows. The use of stock footage from Mount St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo and Montserrat combines with decent special effects from the British house Lola (which also worked on the Discovery Channel movie Pompeii - The Last Day) to produce an effective depiction of the disaster as it happens.

Another thing that separates SuperVolcano from typical disaster films is that there are no villains here — not even the supervolcano. Instead, every character is a human being; a sympathetic character struggling to do what’s right in the face of an unmanageable disaster. Riley in particular punctuates the grim tone of the movie with his quirky performance and even the officials trying to downplay the scope of the disaster (a cliche of other filmes) are decent people motivated by the real and defendable desire to limit panic. The Yellowstone volcano isn’t an Irwin Allen force of morality destroying fornicators and two-bit criminals while testing the character of our heroes. The people who die include vulcanologists caught doing their jobs.

SuperVolcano has a strong Canadian connection. Michael Riley, born in London, Ontario, stars in the CBC series This is Wonderland. A number of other Canadian actors star, and a lot of the movie was filmed in Vancouver.

With the disaster so big, officials are rendered essentially helpless. SuperVolcano offers a grim commentary of humanity’s ineffectiveness in the face of the full wrath of nature, but it ends on an optimistic note. The world that Yellowstone leaves behind is deeply changed (covered in snow and ice), but humanity is still there, coping as best it can.

The movie, running two hours and fifteen minutes, with commercials, is followed by a forty-five minute epilogue with Peter Jennings, summarizing the points of the show and drilling down into the facts to see whether or not such an eruption could happen. The intervals between the last three eruptions mean absolutely nothing; Yellowstone will not erupt on a schedule that we can predict, but beyond that, SuperVolcano is not science fiction, it’s speculative fiction; an educational experience, and interesting television all at one go.

Further Reading


Happy Birthday Blogography

Dave at Blogography is celebrating his blog’s second birthday in style, with lots of posts and prizes to be won. Yes, prizes.

Blogography is one man’s personal blog from small-town Washington. Dave has an interesting life enjoying Mac products and travelling the world on his life goal to visit every outlet of the Hard Rock cafe — and I mean every outlet. He writes in a conversational style that is engaging and fun to read, and he draws some wicked cartoons.

It’s no surprise that Dave has gathered a sizable readership, even though he hardly ever talks about politics — or perhaps because he does. His is the blog of the decent outgoing individual who adds life to a party, and now he’s having a party, and you’re invited.

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