Appellate Judge James A. Stewart still remembers the horrible day When The Popcorn Ran Out...
"That volcano can cut loose any time now. It's too dicey to hang around here, oil or no oil."
As the producer of movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen was known back in the 1970s as The Master of Disaster. Allen put all-star casts in dangerous situations, such as sinking ships, fires, and floods.
What was left by 1980? How about volcanoes? When Time Ran Out… puts Paul Newman, William Holden, Jacqueline Bisset, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Burgess Meredith, Alex Karras, Pat Morita, and others in the path of lava. It's based on the novel The Day the World Ended by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts.
When I took on this review, I saw it as a no-lose situation for a reviewer: If it's a good movie, it's a good movie, but if it's bad, it'll be even more fun. Alas, that wasn't the case…
Facts of the Case
A lone figure walks across the bleak landscape of a volcanic crater as the movie begins. That's Bob Spangler (James Franciscus, Beneath the Planet of the Apes). He's checking out the crater but ignoring the turbulent findings, since he's got vaguely defined financial interest in an oil well and a new luxury hotel nearby. Even a trip down into the volcano that nearly ends in tragedy can't convince him that there's trouble ahead, although oil man Hank (Paul Newman, Road to Perdition) has figured it out.
When the inevitable happens, Hank leads a small group on a dangerous journey to high ground and safety while the others remain at a hotel that's being pelted by balls of lava.
Before you put characters in jeopardy in a disaster flick, you've got to introduce them. That's the problem with When Time Ran Out…: the first part of the movie, as the stock characters—including a former high-wire artist (Burgess Meredith, Rocky)—are introduced, is tedious and boring. The awkward but significant pauses and glances that pass for character development are ridiculous but not very amusing. I never quite believed the hints of a love triangle with Paul Newman's Hank Anderson and William Holden's Shelby Gilmore both pursuing Jacqueline Bisset (Bullitt). Spangler's convincingly slimy, but James Franciscus' clueless character isn't very interesting. With the exceptions of Paul Newman, who can actually build dramatic tension with a glance, and brief comic bickering between a suspected criminal (Red Buttons, The Poseidon Adventure) and the cop (Ernest Borgnine, McHale's Navy) who's shadowing him, there's not much of interest in the early scenes.
By the half-hour mark, I was waiting for something—anything—to happen. Finally, it does, as Hank decides to take a capsule down into the volcano to see the situation for himself. Between a malfunction and a volcanic flareup, there's a moment of danger. It doesn't go anywhere for a while, though.
Hank tries to talk his men out of staying at the oil rig, but they refuse. He doesn't seem too worried about it, though, instead going off for a picnic with Kay. Thus, it takes another 20 minutes or so for Hank and Kay to spot the big belch of the volcano that'll mean that the movie is about to begin—at last!
"Listen, this whole island's coming apart!" Hank radioes in, as if the tidal wave, shaking earth, and plunging of a research station into the fiery crater weren't hints.
Once the action actually begins, Newman makes a good hero. Some of the cast, notably Meredith, Borgnine, and Buttons, are able to do something with their stock characters, but that's a tougher climb than the crumbling mountain with the script they're given. A scene in which panicked hotel guests steal Hank's helicopter makes a little bit of an impression, as does a tense action scene at the end, but the failure of the movie's lame first half cuts into the emotional impact later on.
There are a few marks and scratches, but the transfer looks decent for the most part, albeit with the constant dark reddish glow of lava. Some of the landscape, actually Hawaii, is breathtaking. The loud score by Lalo Schifrin doesn't quite have the punch of his Mission: Impossible theme, but it's okay.
As for extras, there aren't any. Warner Bros. obviously didn't think viewers would care much, and I suspect they're right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The special effects look decent for the pre-CGI era. I was sure the research station that fell into the crater was a miniature and the people who fall off Hank's helicopter were dummies, but the volcano and lava looked convincing.
With 10 or more minutes from the first half lopped off to fill a two-hour slot, the movie might have played better on television.
As I watched When Time Ran Out…, it occurred to me that I might have seen this once before. My uncertainty on this point points to the forgettable nature of the movie. Worse than a disaster of a movie, it's mostly just a way to fill time.
As for prospects of a great thrill ride or a campy classic, I guess this would be the day When My Reviewer's Luck Ran Out…
Guilty, but not as much of a pleasure as I'd hoped.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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