Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

joe versus the volcano

“There are certain times in your life when I guess you’re not supposed to have anyone, you know? Certain doors you gotta go through alone.”

The Scoop: 1990 PG, directed by John Patrick Shanley, and starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Dan Hedaya, and Abe Vigoda

Tagline: An Average Joe. An Adventurous Comedy.

Summary Capsule: Joe vs. a volcano

Justin’s rating: Justin vs. The Ant Hill

Justin’s review: Defining cult film is a difficult and sticky topic to wander into without proper protection (I’m talking “kevlar armor” protection, not “trojan condoms” protection). Lord knows I’ve tried over the last several years of Mutant Reviewers, and I’m never satisfied with any explanation I can produce.

The problem lies in the fact that unlike several other cinema genres, the cult genre has no baseline. There are no set standards that have to be met for a film to be declared “cult.” An action film must contain a never-say-die hero and a bunch of action sequences. A romance film must contain a love story of some kind. A mystery must attempt to outwit the audience right up to the film’s end (although many fail in this, but that’s a subject for another day). A comedy’s gotta make you laugh, or at least try for a sarcastic joke or two. Whereas a cult film can be all or none of the above.

The best I can come up with is whether or not a movie feels like it’s cult, when my Spidey-sense is tingling and I just know without knowing. It can be its weirdness, its pandering to only a small segment of society, its in-jokes, its unconventional methods… then again, it might be none of these things and still be cult. I mean, I know that a lot of the our staff and many readers have varying opinions on what cult movies are supposed to be, and I’m sure my tastes are far removed from most. But I’d wager that I could argue that 99% of the movies we’ve covered on this site — mainstream or no — have elements of cult, there and kicking.

This is a long-winded way for me to say that Joe Versus The Volcano would be hard to argue intelligently as a member of the cult genre, but the first time I saw it I knew in my gut that there is really no other category to place this film. And strangely enough, I discovered this movie when the opening sequence was shown in my college film class, a place which taught me to hate other such “classics” like Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange.

Starting with a “Once upon a time” text credit and an orchestra tuning up, the credits introduce us to Joe (a depressed-looking Tom Hanks) trudging to work to the score of a blues tune. Oh, did I mention he works at a company that produces rectal probes and other fun products? The fun comes from noticing the small details, which are peppered in exaggeration and double meanings. The sets — from dark and gloomy to harshly lit fluorescent lights — suggest the worst work environment possible, and when Joe mournfully remarks about a torn shoe, “I’m losing my sole,” it doesn’t take a half-wit English major to figure out the subtext of the film.

It’s a fantasy that incorporates a bit of romance, a bit of philosophy, and a lot of quirky comedy. Stuck in a bad job (watch out for Joe’s dour boss, who’s not just mean but also *dense*), Joe discovers that he’s going to die. It’s a Fight Club-lite: this is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. Only Joe realizes that he hasn’t lived at all. When a mysterious man shows up and offers Joe riches and adventure, as long as Joe will leap into a volcano and save an island paradise from the volcano god’s wrath… well, whatcha got to lose?

Everything and everyone in Joe’s world is goofy, but played with remarkable straightfaceness. The closest I can compare this film to is to Repo Man or Hudson Hawk, which are also set in a world quite like our own, yet they are all definitely in a Bizarro universe. It all plays out like a modern-day fairy tale, although I think it’d be easy to interpret your own message. Yet it’s not the nutty plot twists that got me captivated, it’s all in the small quiet details of the film. I normally don’t revel in this sort of thing, but Joe Versus The Volcano makes tiny things like looking at a wall or listening to a brief but amusing noises. Every time Joe angrily turns the main valve (next to a “DO NOT TOUCH”) sign and all that happens is you hear a tiny, echoing drop… that cracks me up.

As Joe embarks on his odyssey of life, he falls for the same girl, three times. Or three girls, each time. See, it’s a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan flick too, but without all that Oprah Book Club, romance novel crap. Meg Ryan plays three different girls who might look alike, but all contain various personalities. Who knows what they represent in Joe’s quest, it’s just kinda offbeat and fun enough as it is (trivia hounds: one other movie uses the same actress for three different romantic interests — Cemetery Man).

Critics and general pooh-poohers were very confused by this film (one of the signs of cult, naturally), but the clincher came concerning the end of the film. The movie arrives at the title conflict, Joe vs. that really hot volcano, and shreds any sense of reality it might have held up to that point. I admit, it kinda falters here, but only because the first half of the film is so strong and meticulously planned, that the whole conclusion seems like a weak cop-out. Still, Joe Versus The Volcano veered off from the normal kind of Hollywood compost we’re accustomed to, and it’s enjoyable to boot. Plus, if you’ve ever been tempted to quit your job with flair, check out this film as a sort of instruction manual.

Lloyd Bridges makes everything better.
Lloyd Bridges makes everything better.


  • Joseph Banks was the name of Captain Cook’s chief botanist on his expeditions to the South Pacific in the 18th century.
  • The company logo appears frequently, each time representing a path to destruction: the path leading up to the factory, the product that the company makes (a rectal probe), the bolt of lightning which sinks the ship, the path up the side of the mountain, the lava flow down the side of the volcano, the crack in Joe’s apartment, and a constellation.
  • The lamp that Joe brings into his office displays tropical images, including a volcano.
  • The books that Joe shows to Mr. Waturi describe the plot of the film: “Romeo and Juliet”, “Robinson Crusoe”, and “The Odyssey”.
  • When Joe and DeDe leave the restaurant, there is a billboard on the left with a picture of an erupting volcano and the words “Fire in Paradise”.
  • Four references to losing your soul
  • The mask worn by the Waponi who is representing the evil spirit resembles the factory where Joe used to work.
  • Death by volcano would be a painful, if brief, way to go. And what choices! From breathing in ash and sulphur fumes to having your body burst into flames before you even touch the lava, it’s probably one of the least, yet most spectacular, forms of suicide. Just make sure to carry lots of fireworks with you, so you go out with a *cough* bang.

Groovy Quotes

Joe: There are certain times in your life when I guess you’re not supposed to have anyone, you know? Certain doors you gotta go through alone.

Patricia: You mean you were diagnosed with something called a brain cloud and didn’t ask for a second opinion?

Joe: I’ve never been to L.A. before.
Angelica: What do you think?
Joe: It looks fake. I like it!

Joe: So I’m not sick? Except for this terminal disease?

Angelica: You’re in a rotten mood.
Patricia: It’s the sunshine. Get’s me down.

Patricia: My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.

Patricia: I love you!
Joe: I love you too! But your timing sucks!

Angelica: Would you like to hear one of my poems?
Joe: Sure.
Angelica: “Long ago, the delicate tangles of his hair covered the emptiness of my hands.” Would you like to hear it again?

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