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Losing My Soul: Joe vs. The Volcano Film Analysis
When you consider the movie, Joe vs. the Volcano, you must remember that it was released in 1990. This was before Philadelphia or Forrest Gump. Tom Hanks, at this time, was mostly considered to be a physical comic actor. Audiences were used to seeing Hanks in rather buffoonish roles in movies like Bachelor Party, Volunteers, and Dragnet. Joe vs. the Volcano seems to be a rather silly title, so it was natural for audiences to expect to see a screwball comedy.
Audiences and critics didn’t seem to think too highly of the movie. It was generally panned and it did not stay in theaters for very long. It seemed to come across as a weak screwball comedy that had only occasional funny moments and nothing truly memorable.
Yet for some, the movie’s bizarreness seemed to linger in their minds and in subsequent viewings, most likely from their homes, many started to detect that there was something more to Joe vs. the Volcano than what they saw in their first viewing.
Let’s take a close look and explore some of the hidden themes.
The very first thing we see is a placard. The words “Once upon a time” are a clue that this is a fairy tale. The characters, places, and events are mostly made up. Fairy tales also often have elements of magic or the supernatural so this simple placard is a clue to what follows. Also notice the nursery rhyme music indicating something child-like.
Joe Banks, played by Tom Hanks is going to work. We are hearing a song with the words “I owe my soul to the company store” Joe, as well as a mass of people, apparently in a dazed state, are walking like zombies to a factory. This is an everyday ritual of getting up early and going to work that many of us can relate to.
The song “Sixteen Tons” reveals the slightly hidden story within the story. Joe vs. the Volcano is basically the classic story of making a deal with the Devil and losing your soul. There is also a theme of personal redemption.
Joe is among the myriad of people who have no meaning in their lives other than going to their job every morning. Their dazed state and dreary surroundings hint they are in some kind of limbo – between awake and asleep. They are barely aware of the awfulness of their situation and they seemed to have stopped caring long ago. These people are unaware that they have traded their souls for a dull, meaningless life.
The sign of the Devil is a crooked line and we see it as the logo of the company Joe works for. We soon see it again as the camera moves upwards revealing that the path the workers are taking is the same crooked line. This scene will be played out again. In fact, the whole movie is essentially a crooked and wide path to redemption that Joe takes. This contradicts the traditional dogma that redemption is found by walking a straight and narrow path.
In case the hidden story is too hidden, Joe brings it out in an obvious way when he tells Deedee, played by Meg Ryan, “I’m losing my sole.” Deedee, whom we’ll see more of later, comes across as totally non-assuming, too accepting, and very dull.
Even worse though, is Joe’s boss, Mr. Waturi. He obviously lives to work. It is all he is about. To him, there is nothing beyond the office. He can’t comprehend why Joe doesn’t share the same dedication to his job. Mr. Waturi can’t stand Joe’s lamp and makes him put it away.
Joe seems to deal with his co-workers like a child dealing with his parents, perpetuating the notion that Joe is basically, a child. Mr. Waturi has no childishness left in him and resents it in Joe.
We see Joe in a Doctor’s waiting room. He is shielding his eyes as if he is hiding from something. He is hiding from the real world. Part of Joe wants to die and this has made him a hypochondriac. He is secretly hoping he will be afflicted with some deadly disease so that his horrible life will soon be over.
Note that the waiting room is plain and dull – as is the nurse. She is just like everybody else just living a lousy, meaningless life. Contrast this with the Doctor’s office. It features warm colors. The fire in the fireplace gives it life. Here, we discover that Joe used to be a fireman. He saved people from fire. In the soul-selling allegory, this makes Joe a fallen angel as he is no longer saving others from hell. He has allowed himself to become a victim instead.
Notice how the Doctor doesn’t seem to even know what a fireman is. He asks “What did you do in the fire department?” and “Was it dangerous?” Allegorically, the Doctor is not human. He is in league with the Devil. We’ll see that he is setting Joe up to sell his soul. The fire behind Joe and the redness in the room are evidence of this.
The Doctor informs Joe that he has a terminal condition called a “brain-cloud”. This is fitting since Joe’s mind is definitely in a fog, as it has been since he left the fire department. Joe anxiously asks if it is incurable as if he wants the answer to be “yes”. Notice also how Joe shows no disappointment, despair, or any negative emotion over finding out he is going to die within six months.
Finding out he has only six months to live seems to flip a switch in Joe. He starts acting like the proverbial man who had a brush with death and now appreciates life so much more. This is of course, the opposite of this situation. Back at work, things are just the way he left them. Mr. Waturi is in another pointless conversation and everybody else is minding their own business. Joe stirs things up. He briefly interacts with Deedee and with Frank. He mocks Waturi with a prosthetic arm, again suggesting Waturi’s lack of humanity.
Joe’s closing the valve suggests he is regaining his bravery and is going to try new things. It scares the hell out of soulless Mr. Waturi. In a sudden inspiration, Joe quits his job. The three books – Robinson Crusoe, Romeo & Juliet, and The Odyssey foretell his upcoming adventures. He leaves the lamp with Deedee. He is passing the torch in hope that Deedee can find her childlike wonder in the lamp. In his speech to Mr. Waturi, Joe no longer behaves like a frightened child, but a giant compared to the others in the room. Joe suddenly realizes the ridiculousness of his whole situation
We now see Joe and Deedee on a date. Joe is doing all the talking. Note how he is focused on only himself and Deedee – as if they are the only two people who matter. Joe is full of energy but he lacks direction. Like the Doctor’s office, the restaurant is colorful and features a lot of red. This again, hints that the Devil is near and Joe is ripe for the taking.
Deedee, with her brown hair, acts as the goddess of the Earth. She is nature and Joe is reaching into the supernatural which is beyond her reasoning. Deedee is overwhelmed. She can’t understand Joe’s change. It enchants her but it also frightens her. It’s unclear here as to which side will win out.
As they leave the restaurant, we see that a volcano is visible on a poster titled “Fire in Paradise”. Joe seems to be in paradise, but it is a false one. Joe is celebrating his upcoming death when he should be celebrating his life. An erupting volcano on a welcoming tropical island reflects this paradox.
At his apartment, Joe tells Deedee his bad news. This is the final straw for Deedee. She is not ready to deal with something like this. She leaves Joe forever.
Samuel Graynamore enters Joe’s apartment the next morning and now we see a large scar on Joe’s wall. It’s the same crooked line that represents his former company and, as we know, the Devil. Mr. Graynamore is no one else but the Devil himself. Here, Joe is given the Faustian bargain – that is for Joe to get all his heart’s desires and pay the price later. Specifically, Joe is given carte blanche to spend huge sums of money, live like a king, be treated as a hero, and then finally jump into a volcano. Joe doesn’t even think about it very long before agreeing to the deal. This just shows how lost Joe really is.
Joe is ready to go on a Manhattan shopping spree and satisfy every materialistic lust he has. This fits exactly into the Devil’s plan as Joe will lose what’s left of his soul with his greed. However, help is on the way – in the form of the limousine driver Marshall. Marshall is basically Joe’s guardian angel and subtly tries to steer him right. Joe doesn’t know where to go or what to buy – again indicating how directionless he is.
But Marshall won’t directly tell him either. He wants Joe to make these decisions. Marshall says “clothes make the man” and later tells Joe he has no clothes hinting that Joe isn’t a man, but a child. As a guardian angel, Marshall is constantly giving Joe advice. Later, Marshall later tells Joe he is “coming into focus” once Joe has new clothes and a new haircut.
Joe encounters the luggage man. Here is a real lost soul. All he seems to think about or talk about is luggage. He reminds us of Joe’s former co-workers who live meaningless, petty lives. Notice however, the blue sky covering the door to the steamer trunk. This, the star on the floor, and the choir that chants are indications of heaven. The trunks represent a gift from heaven.
Marshall’s mentoring puts Joe on the correct path of life. When Joe tells Marshall “There are certain doors you got to go through alone.” Marshall smiles, as this confirms that Joe is finding direction and himself.
Upon reaching Los Angeles, Joe remarks “It looks fake. I like it.” Joe prefers living in a fairy tale world. Earlier, the hairdresser said he looks “like a prince in a fairy tale”.
Angelica, also played by Ryan, is very different than Deedee. She is weird and moody. She is also utterly self-absorbed and likes to talk about herself. When the subject is something other than about her, her favorite response is “I have no response to that.” Angelica, with her fiery-colored hair, clothes, and car, represents the goddess of the sun. Note how depressed she suddenly gets at night and she talks of killing herself.
Joe soon recognizes her as a fellow lost soul – more lost than he is. Joe asks her if, instead of killing herself, do what you’re afraid of doing, wouldn’t it be worth the risk? Joe had tried to help Deedee by giving her the child’s lamp. Now Joe is trying to put Angelica on the right path. Joe’s growth is evident here. He is selflessly trying to help a fellow human being. Note how, unlike with Deedee, he chooses not to bring Angelica to his hotel room. He also never tells Angelica about his situation.
Knowing what we know about the two previous Meg Ryan characters, it’s easy to deduce that Patricia is the Moon goddess. She remarks that the sunshine gets her down. It’s clear that she and Angelica the Sun, don’t get along.
Patricia is another lost soul. She is ashamed at herself for performing a service for her father in exchange for a boat. To her, it is a compromise of principle so she, like Joe, took the Faustian bargain. Joe begins to bond with Patricia, something he couldn’t do with Deedee or Angelica. They are all lost souls but Patricia seems a kindred spirit. Like Joe, she is aware of what she has done and is rediscovering herself.
The crew are enjoying themselves fishing the next day. However, the shark, like the “Fire in Paradise” poster, is an omen. It forebodes that not all is well and there is danger ahead.
Joe and Patricia bond further that night. Joe asks Patricia if she believes in God and Patricia answers “I believe in myself.” After all, she is a god in the underlying story. It’s interesting how Joe seems to see no difference between a tropical island he is going to and Staten Island where he is coming from. We already know Staten Island is full of lost souls and we’ll soon see the Waponi Wu is no different. Patricia remarks that her father told her that most of the world is asleep and the few who aren’t live in a state of constant, total amazement. We already know this to be true and who better to make this observation than the devil himself, who preys upon those who choose to sleep through life.
Joe looks back at his life and realizes how different both he and his life are now as to when he was working in the factory – more indications that Joe is growing as a person.
When Joe told Deedee about his predicament, she was overwhelmed and refused to deal with it. Joe had the good sense to not even bother to tell the self-absorbed Angelica. Joe does decide to explain it all to Patricia. Patricia is a bit shocked, but seems to accept it. This is more evidence of her similarities with Joe.
Note how there are candles and sunflowers behind Joe. The candles remind us of the candlelight dinner with Deedee while the sunflowers represent Angelica. Twice in the movie, Joe tells one of the women that he felt he had seen her before. Deedee, Angelica, and Patricia represent different parts of the same woman – which is why Meg Ryan plays all three parts. So Joe is basically addressing all three of them as the symbols in the background suggest.
Joe may have sold his soul, but he now seems to be re-claiming it. He has full self-awareness and a true love of life. He has also met the women he was meant to be with. For Joe to fully claim his soul back, he will have to be severely tested. A one-time firefighter, Joe bravely rescues Patricia when she is knocked overboard. Here we see the storm was brought on by the devil as we see the lightning bolt in the shape of the crooked path strike and destroy the boat.
Not all is hopeless, though. The trunks he had bought come to the surface. These trunks represent Joe’s guardian angel Marshall as Joe had purchased them with Marshall’s assistance. He is being looked after.
Joe sacrifices himself to try to save the now unconscious Patricia. He doesn’t drink any water. Joe spends days and nights in solitude with only the music from the radio and his ukulele to keep him company. Joe seems to maintain good spirits. Joe is going through the type of fast associated with Jesus. Fasts in religions have a cleansing effect and Joe is being rid of the pettiness he once had. If Joe survives the fast, he’ll emerge as something greater than a mere man.
The rising giant Moon serves as a signal that Patricia, who represents the Moon, is coming back. Keep in mind that the other nights shown were Moonless so a sudden full Moon is a magical event. It also symbolizes that Joe’s personal growth is complete. Where earlier, it was uncertain of whether or not he believed in God, he now thanks God for his life. Joe is now the man he was meant to be, not the cowering child he was at the beginning of the movie, but a selfless, heroic, leader.
The Waponis are lost souls. They traded their souls for orange soda. They traded their God-fearing culture into one of western decadence. No one of the tribe is willing to sacrifice himself or herself for the good of the tribe. Enter Joe, the savior and that is how he is treated. As Jesus was welcomed into the temple in a celebration of palms, Joe is given similar treatment. Note the Jewish song being sung here.
At the feast, we see a Waponi wearing a very strange, yet familiar mask. It's familiar because it is a mock up of the factory Joe used to work in. Notice also, that a Waponi appears to have a pyramid painted on one hand and an eye on another - a masonic symbol. These images reinforce the idea that Waponi Wu is really no different than Staten Island, or Manhattan Island. They're all full of lost souls.
Once again, we see the crooked path symbol, this time, as an actual crooked path up the way to hell. Joe is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself for these soulless people. He accepts it as his duty and is willing to forsake his newly found love to do what he feels is right. Patricia, in finding Joe, has found herself as well and realizes her place is with him no matter what. So she and Joe leap into the volcano to destroy themselves by descending into hell to save the Waponis.
But… an unexpected thing happens. Hell rejects the two who have proven themselves so worthy and instead, consumes the Waponis. This contradicts the Christian story as the soulless are not saved.
Joe and Patricia are once again saved by the trunks and are now Gods themselves and will live “away from the things of Man and happily ever after”.
Or will they? Going back on board the Tweedle Dee – Patricia’s boat, Patricia told Joe about how sleeping on a boat affects your dreams What if the whole part of the movie that followed was just a dream through Wonderland?