Shitty Movie Sundays: When Time Ran Out, or, The Poseidon Volcano

Irwin Allen had been producing motion pictures for over twenty years before he wandered into the disaster genre. He had a pair of genre-defining hits with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, but that was about all the water Allen could draw from that well before bringing up sludge. Next came The Swarm (dreadful), then Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (sickening), and finally When Time Ran Out. According to the internet, so it must be true, Paul Newman, star of When Time Ran Out, was once asked if he regretted making any film. He answered, “That volcano movie.”

Released in 1980, When Time Ran Out was written by Carl Foreman and Stirling Silliphant, from a novel by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. It was directed by James Goldstone, and is indeed “That volcano movie.”

Paul Newman stars as Hank Anderson, an oil wildcatter looking to strike it rich on a fictional Hawaiian island. Irwin Allen always managed to purchase talent for his flicks, so alongside Newman is William Holden as Shelby Gilmore, owner of a new resort on the island. His business partner is Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), son of a local land baron, who has inherited practically the entire island. Jacqueline Bisset plays Kay Kirby, who is caught in a love triangle with Hank and Shelby. Meanwhile, Bob has been having an affair with Hawaiian native Iolani (Barbara Carrera), unbeknownst to his wife, Nikki (Veronica Hamel).

But wait, there’s more. What is a tropical resort without guests?

Burgess Meredith and Valentina Cortese play Rene and Rose Valdez, who, I shit you not, are retired trapeze artists. Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine round out the cast as crooked banker Francis Fendly and New York City Police Detective Tom Conti, who is on the island to nab Fendly and take him back to New York to face justice. That’s a lot of backstory and side action for a single movie, but it’s needed. Because, despite having a budget of $20 million, it appears little of that went towards the volcano on the island. You know, the thing around which the movie revolves.

The volcano has decided to erupt, threatening to send a stream of lava down the mountainside and straight into the resort. Hank is practically frantic at the prospect, but many of the other people at the resort don’t seem to be in any rush to flee. That’s understandable, because the thing looming out of their hotel room windows has about all the sophistication of a backdrop made for a junior high school play. It has the basic shape of a volcano, but it’s almost as if the modelers and effects team were working from memory when they put together the volcano, using no photographs for reference.

The effects in this movie are embarrassing. At no point do they approach believability. Normally, this would be a bad thing. But this is Shitty Movie Sundays, where laughably bad special effects are endearing, and not a fatal flaw for a film. Irwin Allen and company were really pushing it with this nonsense, however.

As noted above, Hank is alarmed at the increasingly perilous situation at the resort. It’s an isolated location, with no rescue possible before the following day. Hank is convinced that’s too long to wait, so he decides to lead a group to the other side of the island where it is safe, over the vociferous objections of Bob Spangler. If this sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because Allen used this exact same plot device in The Poseidon Adventure. The scenes where the hero breaks off from the main group follow so closely in their respective films that the dialog could be swapped and viewers might not notice. That amount of recycling is shameless.

What worked in The Poseidon Adventure doesn’t work here, however. The action in this film is plodding, with only trace amounts of the tension that made The Poseidon Adventure such an enjoyable watch.

When Time Ran Out is, as it turns out, a very apt title. The film is the last gasp of a filmmaker bereft of any more good ideas. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, this type of formulaic crap was only good for a couple of films before folks started going bankrupt. Meanwhile, this past week, The Fate of the Furious passed $1.5 billion in global box office. The lesson, I guess, is that if you’re going to put garbage to film, at least make it spectacular. When Time Ran Out is a far worse film than Alien: Resurrection.