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Movie Monday: “Joe Versus the Volcano”

Movie Monday is officially here, and the first film featured on this blog is an old funny favorite of mine, Joe Versus the Volcano. I confess, this post is also a #tbt of sorts, in that it’s a combination of some of my previous writing. This is a looong one, so be prepared to either sit for a while or break it into chunks.

First, a revised excerpt from a top-30 post of mine from another blog I use (you can read the original post here):

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) is one of my all-time favorites, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, but that start with my first viewing of it. I was young and inexperienced and invested in the story enough that I didn’t notice that Meg Ryan played multiple characters throughout the movie, so when someone (probably my dad) told me later, I was over-the-moon-impressed by how clever that was, and what it added to the story. (In general, I don’t love Meg Ryan’s performances, but I still enjoy her acting in Joe.) After a while the glow started to fade a bit, until I wrote a paper about it in my college film class (fall 2011). My professor loved it, so that certainly helped, but I was able to make comparisons between Joe and Metropolis that still blow my mind. Plus, I love Tom Hanks as an actor and the soundtrack was perfect.

So, here’s the essay, in all its academic glory (except I couldn’t find my original screenshots, so there are only blurry place-holders at the moment):

Mud, Muscle and Blood

An Individual’s Existence in Dystopian Cinema

Fantasy and fairy tale collide with the inescapable reality of institutional oppression for main character Joe Banks in John Patrick Shanley’s 1990 film Joe Versus the Volcano. After embarking on an adventure over land and sea to make something of his life before he dies, Joe finds both the restoration of his health and the love of his life, but the irony of their improbable “honeymoon” suggests that truly happy endings cannot occur in real life, and the individual can never be free from the company-collective ideology. This same ideology is confirmed in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) which can be used to critique Joe vs. the Volcano. In the latter film, Shanley represents the imminent subjection of the individual within a collective society to a dehumanizing corporation through the use of non-diegetic music, extreme long shots, and symbolic cinematography which plays a significant role throughout the movie.

Based in Long Island, New York, Joe vs. the Volcano is the story of a thirty-something ex-firefighter, Joe Banks (Tom Hanks), who has “a very lousy job” at a petroleum jelly and rectal probe factory in the advertising department. Also a diagnosed hypochondriac, Banks constantly complains of “not feeling good,” and after one lunch-break doctor visit, discovers that nothing actually ails him but for a terminal, symptomless disease called a “brain cloud.” After quitting his miserable job at American Panascope in order to find some happiness in the four months he has to live, Joe searches and fails to find solace in his female ex-co-worker, Didi (Meg Ryan), who “can’t handle” starting a relationship with a dying man. The next morning, a suspiciously knowledgeable old businessman shows up at Banks’ home and, playing to the “heroism” in his past firefighting experience and the fact that he is going to die soon (according to his doctor), convinces Joe to jump into a volcano on the all-but-unknown Pacific island Waponi Woo, in order to appease “the Big Woo” which threatens to destroy the native Waponis. On the way to the island with four shiny credit cards in hand, Banks meets a variety of lovable characters, the last of whom, Patricia Graynamore (also Meg Ryan, the significance of which will be discussed later), daughter of the businessman, proclaims her love to him just as he is about to jump into the volcano. Appealing to the Waponi chief to marry them first, Joe then takes the leap with Patricia in hand, and the two are miraculously blown back out into the ocean, only slightly singed, along with their surprisingly buoyant luggage. After the shock of their survival wears off, the couple realizes that Joe’s “brain cloud” was merely a capitalist plot between Patricia’s father and Joe’s doctor to obtain a rare mineral from the island, and they float off into the sunset of “happily ever after.”

Just before the opening credits, after the Warner Brother’s logo appears, an orchestra can be heard “warming up” as if for some big, public production, while the audience watches only a black screen. The music rises and rises, only to cease at the tapping of a conductor’s wand and morph into a childlike, music-box-type tinkling with the words “Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe” appearing on the screen. Already, the film has established that there is an obvious divide between fairy tale and real life, but one which has been confused, as it is for Joe throughout the entire film, by the conflicting expectations set up for the audience by the two very different sounding tracks. This plays to the fact that, as seen later in the film, Joe is completely oblivious that the company penetrates all aspects of his life, even when he has “escaped” to the island of Waponi Woo — he consistently fails to recognize when and where the company is controlling him, and to what extent that company owns him.

Figure 1
Joe (Hanks) sets foot in a mud puddle at the beginning of “Joe Versus the Volcano” (Figure 1)

The next sound the audience hears is that of a car’s worn-out brakes squeaking to a halt as the camera’s iris out reveals a mud puddle in a dirty parking lot (Figure 1), followed by the opening guitar lick of Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” covered by Eric Burdon. As Banks steps out of the car, Burdon significantly sings the totally applicable opening line of the number-one hit: “Some people say a man is made out of mud.” A song about the physically and mentally exhausting work in a coal mine, “Sixteen Tons” is even more appropriate to Joe vs. the Volcano for the final line of its chorus: “I owe my soul to the company store.” From this, it could hardly be more clearer how powerful the company is, and how futile Joe’s efforts will be in trying to escape its grasp, but the film takes those concepts even further. As Joe progresses through the prison-like gates along the path to the factory entrance, the camera cuts to a close-up of a lone daisy sticking out of the concrete as Joe steps around it, only to have it crushed by the one feminine foot the audience sees in the shot, right as one of the guitar riffs ends, and just before the music changes to a higher key. This emphasis added by the music only further accentuates the oppressive quality of the company in suggesting a near destruction of femininity, an equalizer and mechanism of conformity that is forced upon the workers.

Figure 2
Mr. Waturi’s “Artificial Testicles Prototype” (Figure 2)

This equalization and elimination of femininity also opens up the thematic subcategory of desexualization among the community of workers, which stems from the overall dehumanization directed by the company. After the flower shot, the next example the film gives of this is in Joe’s boss’, Mr. Waturi’s, handling of the glass testicles which belong on a trophy sort of display labeled “artificial testicles prototype” (Figure 2). As the manager of this particular outpost of American Panascope, Mr. Waturi quite naturally represents the company as a whole, so the fact that he is holding fake testicles when Joe walks in the door suggests that he and in turn the company has literally castrated the workers. Also, the fact that the glass balls are labeled “artificial” suggests that, before castration, the workers were perhaps less than human to begin with, accentuating the seemingly infinite aspect of servitude, as neither the end nor the beginning is in sight. But as castration does not really apply to women, the film uses a different visual to make female sexuality objective and unemotional, which is essentially the same as desexualization. The objectification of the female sex organs is evident in the two desk lamps, which, if not for the fact that there are two of them side by side, the viewer might assume that they are simply lamps — this is not the case. Based on the number of them as well as the proximity in which the lamps are placed relative to the fake testicles, the lamps take on the crude appearance of female breasts, and so the desexualized and objectified picture is complete. 

Figure 3
A screenshot from the garden scene in the silent film, “Metropolis” (Figure 3). Watch the full scene, overlaid with music, below.

While not in quite the same way, Metropolis also illustrates the manipulation of sexuality and speaks to the concept of desexualization by corporate influence. In this film, the elimination of femininity is more extreme in its totality, as women do not seem to even be permitted in the workplace. The first shot which introduces women to the film takes place in an almost mystical garden where all are dressed in costume, and comes after the audience sees all the men in an entirely separate and oppositely drab “worker’s city.” The contrast and physical distance between the men and women of Metropolis here serves as a suggestion of the company’s success in the removal of emotion and therefore sexual tension, which not only highlights the pervasiveness of corporate influence but also its power, and a lack thereof on the part of the people. But this removal of emotion is also evident in the objectification of the women  in the garden as “entertainers,” mere playthings on display for the boss’s (Joh Frederson’s) son, Freder (Figure 3). 

Eventually, however, the audience is introduced to one lone woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who is not only a threat to Frederson and his city simply by standing alone (as Joe also does to Mr. Waturi in Shanley’s film) but in doing so, she offers herself up as the target for manipulation by the company, as a potential source of sexual power to be wielded by the corporation. Her innocence and purity as both a mother figure to the children of Metropolis and savior to the men of the worker’s city also automatically puts her in a position of power which the company must of course take control over to completely dictate the life of the workers and, in turn, the city of Metropolis; in the same way, American Panascope completely governs the lives of every character in Joe vs. the Volcano, especially the women who interact with Joe. Where the men representing corporate influence in Metropolis literally create a robot clone of Maria and use “her” to turn the workers against each other, the deliberate casting of Meg Ryan as all three of Joe’s potential love interests — Didi, Angelica and Patricia, the latter two of whom have the same father, all of whom work for one of the two companies which own Joe in some form or another — in Joe vs. the Volcano represents this manipulation of the female sex which allows for penetration of public life, whether that be individual or collective. While Patricia truly seems to realize the danger of her father’s influence in both her own life and Joe’s, the fact that she is still tied to him by filial “love”  tells the audience that the marital union between her and Joe will forever be tainted by “the man.” In short, both films work to present sexuality as a weapon or means of psychological penetration and manipulation rather than a personal, even emotional experience.

Figure 4
Nondescript cars fill the parking lot in front of the company where Joe works (Figure 4)

In dealing with both this idea of sexuality in the workplace and the imposition of a certain conformity upon the working class, Joe vs. the Volcano continues to instill the idea of desensitized life with the use of extreme long shots. The first of these reveals a mud parking lot full of hundreds of drab-colored cars (Figure 4), none of which display any sort of brand name or variation from one other. The next extreme long shot is much the same but without the focus on the cars. Instead, the camera transitions from an overhead crane shot of Banks raising his hands to the sky after destroying the sole of his shoe and stepping in a second puddle, inside the gates, to the monochromatic mob trudging along a crooked path in the shape of the company’s logo (Figure 5). The fact that the workers follow this completely nonfunctional path further accentuates the fact that either a) they are so brainwashed by the company that they can’t even see that it would be faster to deviate from the path and walk in a straight line, or b) they are in absolutely no hurry to go to work. Not only that, but the physical distance of the people and the cars from the camera suggests a certain depersonalization which plays to that lack of emotion and imposition of conformity by the company mentioned previously. This is also seen later in the film when Joe exists the doctor’s office and the camera tracks away from Joe so that the audience hardly notices any emotional response from him in regard to the news that he is “dying” until he hugs a random woman on the street (as well as her dog). In any case, the film implies that the people are being oppressed and free will is being tampered with.

Figure 5
Joe and his co-workers walk a path in the shape of their company’s logo (Figure 5)

In the same way that Joe vs. the Volcano presents the mass trekking to work, Metropolis shows its workers as not only oppressed by the company, and maybe even the city itself, but equally depressed about the working life. While it may not quite qualify as an extreme long shot for the men at the back of the line nearest the camera, the shot of the workers moving in and out of the tunnel to the actual work site is obviously quite striking as a depiction of exhaustion and dread at the thought of working (Figure 6). The men going in on the right march at a quicker pace than the men leaving on the left, but neither show any true enthusiasm in going to work. This is understandable, with the prison aspect of their occupation quite literally apparent by the vertically rising gates to the work site, not to mention their completely solid color uniforms — they are not even permitted to wear their own clothes. Granted, this movie was filmed sixty-odd years earlier than Joe vs. the Volcano, but the obvious regimentation and imprisonment of the workers at least shows the extremist ideas behind Shanley’s desired message and expression of collectivist ideology in his 1990 film.

Figure 6
Shift change in “Metropolis” (Figure 6)
[[Watch the clip here]]
Figure 7
A Waponi native wearing a familiar demon mask (Figure 7). See the blog post featuring this image at

The ultimate demonstration of this utter domination by the company where Joe works, however, comes with the purposeful placement of the camera, or, more specifically, where the camera stops. There is a fair amount of camera movement in this first clip, which means it is all the more important to note when it stops. For example, when the camera tilts up to reveal the frontal view of the factory from that extreme long shot, it is easy to see the building take the shape of some sort of demon (Figure 4), about to devour a multitude of mindless, human sacrifices. Although the camera does not actually stop moving until the title of the movie covers the face of the factory demon, it provides ample time for the audience to see the figure, and the words on the screen disappear before the image. This image is even more important because of its recurrence at the end of the film in the pre-jump festival, where a native Waponi dresses up as the demon that is said to reside within the volcano in a costume with a mask that almost exactly resembles the front of the factory, complete with the company emblem on its triangular nose (Figure 7). This emblem with the lightning bolt shape on it is probably the clearest signification of the company’s pervasiveness as it shows up not only with the demon and at the factory, but also in Joe’s house (Figure 8), the actual lightning bolt that breaks Patricia’s boat in half (Figure 9), and on the path to the mouth of the volcano (Figure 10). So not only are the workers literally walking into the mouth of the monster/company, but there is a sense of utter entanglement given off by this “second coming” (or multiple “comings,” including the other shots containing uniquely shaped lightning bolts) that tells the audience that even on a speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean, Joe cannot hide from or escape the company.

Figure 8
The company logo in Joe’s house (Figure 8)
Figure 9
The lightning bolt that breaks Patricia’s (Ryan’s) boat (Figure 9)
Figure 10
The path to the mouth of the volcano (Figure 10). See this photo in its original post at

This same concept is illustrated by Freder’s interactions with the machine literally labeled by him as “Moloch” in Metropolis. When the boss’s/city ruler’s son enters the factory, allegedly in search of Maria, he happens across the “M” machine, which the audience watches morph into an iron, sphinx-like monster through a cloud of smoke as the machine malfunctions (Figure 11). While it is unclear what exactly is hallucination and what is reality in this scene, through a point of view shot from Freder, the camera depicts the naked workers being dragged into the fiery mouth of the beast, similar to the way Joe is ceremonially ushered into the volcano at the end of Shanley’s film. Although Joe technically acts of his own accord, and the scene is portrayed as one of celebration, it is still easy to see parallels between the volcano and the mouth of the Moloch machine, and the audible fear instilled in and expressed by the Waponis at the rumbling of the “Big Woo” mirrors the same fear and horror visible on Freder’s face. So when Freder (and the audience) watches Moloch return to the “ordinary” M machine and Joe and Patricia are miraculously blown out of the volcano, it is obvious that both films foster the idea that the company-collective devours not only the mind or soul but the body as well, especially by the fact that the workers actually did get injured and that all (or at least many) of the Waponis drown as the volcano sinks into the ocean.

Figure 11
The M Machine transforms into Moloch (Figure 11)

Yet Joe vs. the Volcano provides another earlier example of the workers’ sacrificial role back in the initial trek to work sequence, illustrated by the camera pausing on a sign which reads “American Panascope presents: A New Generation of Surgical Tools.” As the camera tracks slightly forward and pauses here, people continue to pass by, out of focus, suggesting that the people are perhaps mere tools themselves. Ironically though, too, it hardly seems like there is anything “new” about this generation of workers, entrenched in routine, entering a factory mired in generations of filth. The irony of this is confirmed with another pause on the “50 Years of Petroleum Jelly” sign, equating the formlessness and essentially uselessness of the product with the stature of the workers for the last 50 years. As if that weren’t enough, the pause on the “Home of the Rectal Probe” sign which indicates the rising number of “satisfied customers” (Figure 12) clearly states that the factory owners, if not the employees themselves, have deluded themselves in believing that there is no greater satisfaction than that of having the company “all up in their business.” Then finally, the camera pauses on Joe’s destination as he walks in the door labeled “Advertising Department,” just to accentuate the futility of his implied task: making rectal probes and petroleum jelly sound appealing.

Figure 12
The number of “satisfied customers” at Joe’s factory increases (Figure 12)

Although Joe Banks and Patricia Graynamore get to have their “happily ever after” at the end of the film, the dystopia so painstakingly set up by Shanley and confirmed by Lang in Metropolis provides little hope of such a neatly packaged finale existing outside of story books. Joe has been forced into a collective atmosphere swallowed daily by the beast that is the Company, and even though it spits him back out, irrevocable damage has been done, and as sailing off into the sunset on a raft made out of suitcases in the middle of the Pacific ocean with the hope of surviving is hardly plausible, there can be only one end: work or die. So states Joe versus the Volcano.

**For more clips, check out this playlist**

Essay text copyright © Caitlin Skvorc, December 18, 2011; Caitlin Buxbaum, 2019



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