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Supervolcano on The Discovery Channel

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First, a disclosure; I was an employee of the company that housed the Discovery Channel’s broadcast operations for four years, until August of 2004. I no longer have any association with the network, but for one year, my primary job was to run the on-air programming four nights a week – operate the computer that powered the automated tape-loading machine, swap out tapes, and most importantly press the start button that set Discovery’s signature globe a-spinning in the lower right corner of your television screen.

If you’ve never worked in TV, it might sound fascinating and even glamourous, in its way.

It wasn’t … but I did get an inside view at the way the Discovery networks operate, and also a snootful of their programming – enough, I figured, to last a lifetime.

Then tonight The Discovery Channel premiered their new dramatic presentation, Supervolcano. This is a movie made in cooperation with the BBC, and appears to have first aired in Great Britain on March 13.

I believe this is the first time Discovery has ventured into fictional waters; their first time at the plate in the TV-movie game. If so, the network formerly known for documentaries, nature programming and true-crime depictions has hit a home-run in their first dramatic at-bat.

I found Supervolcano riveting. The movie opens with a typical documentary-like introduction by Tom Brokaw about the facts upon which this film is based; Yellowstone, the oldest national park in the world, located in Wyoming, sits atop the worlds largest volcano. This volcano may one day erupt. If it does, the results will be nothing less than a natural-born apocalypse for the continental United States, and big trouble for the rest of the world.

There is evidence in recent years that the huge deposit of magma that sits beneath the park, providing heat for famous geysers such as Old Faithful, is restless, and may be growing. In the last four years or so the talk of a super-eruption from this supervolcano has gone from the kind of doomsday colloquy reserved for guests on Coast to Coast AM with George Noory or Art Bell, to legitimate discussions by scientists interviewed for previous documentaries on the subject on the Discovery Channel as well as a number of other science and nature-themed networks.

The Discovery Channel has chosen to portray the events surrounding a super eruption of the Yellowstone caldera and the event itself.

The main characters are the team of scientists led by Rick Lieberman, as played by Michael Riley. As Lieberman, Riley is the frayed nerve center of the story as he embodies denial while evidence of the disastrous impending eruption mounts. Riley manages to make the frustrating character likeable and he and his fellow scientists, particularly Scottish actor Gary Lewis as geologist Josh Galvin, give an unusual amount of heart to the story.

In fact, one thing that sets Supervolcano apart from big-budget blockbuster disaster flicks of recent years like The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s global superstorm movie from 2004, is the humanity of the characters. They are just as awed as any one of us might be in the face of nature’s worst. There are no superheroics here, and it adds to the tension and drama immensely.

As you might expect, the CGI effects are, if not spectacular, more than adequate to the story at hand. The final eruption of Yellowstone is truly a vision of hell on earth.

If I have a particularly personal response to this movie, it’s not because I worked for Discovery at some point; if anything, that would normally make me much more critical of their product. At one time, spotting tiny flaws in Discovery programming was a part of my job. Once I no longer had to do that, I consciously avoided watching the network for quite a while – you can only see the same footage of bonobo chimp-mating orgies so many times.

I think that for me Discovery has, with this movie, used special effects and a nicely balanced cast of actors giving unusually nuanced performances (for a disaster movie), in the framework of a well-written story supported by hard science, to accomplish the difficult trick of making the potential for such an unbelievable disaster believable, and immediate.

That particularly personal reaction for me is based on nightmares I had as a kid growing up in the last quarter of the Cold War era; nightmares of vast, worldwide destruction, dreams of great rolling clouds of destruction not unlike the horrific pyroclastic flows depicted in this movie. This movie resurrects such fears and re-frames them.

Perhaps then my reaction is Jungian – I’ve had a core fear, a myth, from my childhood stimulated, virtually resurrected. The strangest thing about the human mind is how entertaining we find this sort of thing.

And it’s been years since I’ve found such a story of awesome destruction as engrossing as Supervolcano. If you are fan of disaster flicks you will want to make it a point to see this movie. If you are a regular visitor to Yellowstone, you might not.

Supervolcano will air on the Discovery Channel again on April 16, at 8 p.m. and 11 pm eastern time, and on April 23 at 2 pm.

Here are some links to sites about supervolcanoes:

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About Steve

  • Wow, great job getting this up so quick. I was going to review it too, but this should suffice.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean I agree with you. I’m absolutely baffled as to why the black guy stepped out to look at the ash falling, then seemed to forget that the ceiling would collapse (and after they reminded him). The characters were completely cliched and unoriginal. You could guess how this was going to end early. Certain performances were ok, but the Irish guy (who had his arm broke), well, you probably know where I was going with this.

    I disagree with the special effects too. Way too much CG as always. It’s blatantly obvious how bad this stuff looks yet everyone continues to use it.

    I did like the science, at least it seemed plausible. That’s usually the biggest problem with these movies. It was drug out a bit too long also, those commercials for that fishing show drove me nuts.

  • Fact is, Matt, it was simply better than I expected. I believe I expected something only a half-step above re-enactments like they do on the crime shows, you know? The ones where they hire local dinner theater actors who look vaguely like the original people in the story if you squint?

    As a result, I may have cut the show a lot of slack – and in part, my view of how good it was was also informed by my experience working for and with the company. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was based on that experience as well. The CGI, I think, was just unavoidable – they did splice a whole lot of real-world footage – looked like a number of clips from coverage of the actual Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the 90’s.

    It’s still a better-than-average Discovery offering, I think. Not prize-winning, though.

    And for me personally, the subject is the kind of thing that almost hypnotizes me. I wasn’t even kidding about it reaching into my own subconscious and resurrecting images from nightmares I had growing up in a world that still feared THE BOMB. So I will say I was predisposed by that alone to liking the thing.

  • Ba –ooooom, Shot heard round the world.

    Lifted and lobbed to Advance.net – Temple (filling in for Scott Pepper who’s on vacation until next week)

  • Ted Dacey

    I have been unable to find a list of the actors in the film and who they portrayed, particularly Ms Reiss.

    Can you assist, please.

  • From IMDB.com;

    Cast (in credits order)
    Emy Aneke …. Lt. Johnson
    Gary Lewis …. Jock Galvin
    Shaun Johnston …. Matt
    Jennifer Copping …. Nancy
    Rebecca Jenkins …. Wendy Reiss
    Tom McBeath …. Michael Eldridge
    Robert Wisden …. Kenneth Wylie
    Susan Duerden …. Fiona Lieberman
    Jane McLean …. Maggie Chin
    Sam Charles …. William Lieberman
    Kevin McNulty …. Joe Foster

    rest of cast listed alphabetically:

    Link Baker …. Rescue Officer
    Rukiya Bernard …. Soldier
    Gary Chalk …. Billy Marshall
    Adrian Holmes …. Dave
    Michael Riley …. Rick Lieberman
    Michael Teigen …. Helicopter Pilot
    Lucia Walters

  • Hi Steve,
    Supervolcano has been broadcast now in Europe as well (I saw the ones on Dutch and Belgian TV) and they were the talk of the town. In a way it works like a wake-up call that we and our economies are still very vulnerable to the earths powers. The christmas tsunami has contributed to this as well in a harsh way. The added value of the realistic way Supervolcanos is done is hopefully that governments get aware of the fact that at least 10% of worlds population lives in the danger zone of volcanoes and that they start making disaster plans to reduce the loss in case of such an event.

    Besides that it also appeals to the fascination one has for volcanoes and their destructive powers. I totaly disagree with you that visitors of Yellowstone will think twice now to go there. As an organisor of worldwide volcano adventures (www.gomagma.com) I received a couple of very excited reactions of people that want to experience volcanism also due to the Supervolcano docu-movie. I even expect that Yellowstone will get more visitors because in a way it earned more “respect” and it appeals to deep but exciting fears than ever before.
    So, although they’re “hot”, volcanoes become more “cool”….

  • Markus;

    I expect you are right about this. I was being a little facetious in saying their visitors would drop. I’m intrigued enough that I’d head up there if time and finances permitted.