Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone (2006)

Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone

Directed by: John Lafia
Starring: Scott Foley, Richard Burgi, Tanya Allen, Brian Markinson, Ty Olsson, Lynda Boyd

There are much better disaster movies than this one, to be sure, but Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone is precisely the sort of thing that spawned the idea for this blog: the kind of film you stumble across while channel surfing at 2 A.M., and that manages to grab your attention enough that you have to watch it all the way through, despite it being a rather mediocre piece of work if you’re honest about it. I just love that crap. I’m sorry.

The story is about wildfires ravaging Yellowstone National Park, and it is action from the first frame as we’re treated to a pre-credits sequence where two brothers hiking in the woods become trapped by rapidly spreading fires and die horribly. Bring out the popcorn! Unfortunately, the death rate drops off dramatically after that.

Cut to Yellowstone HQ, where the annual staff picknick is going on, providing us with the necessary intrapersonal setup: fire researcher Clay Hardin (Foley) checks in with the park manager who has adopted Clay’s “natural fires policy”, which states that fires starting from natural causes should be allowed to burn themselves out without interference. This policy doesn’t sit well with the Yellowstone fire chief, Richard Danville (Burgi), who blames Clay for the cutbacks threathening his department. Clay also runs into his former co-researcher (and romantic interest) Annie Calgrove (Allen), who sides with Danville. Anyone with a moderate knowledge of the genre should be able to plot the storylines, flimsy as they are, from there.

Several wildfires are already raging around the Yellowstone area, and Clay immediately realizes that the uncommonly hot and dry summer and the wind conditions mean that the situation is more dangerous than anyone realizes. But since this is a disaster film, noone wants to listen to Clay’s warnings. The park manager is worried about his budget and refuses to close down the park with the Fourth of July coming up. Yes, it is basically the same scenario as in Jaws, but the idea that tourists would be flocking to a burning national park covered in smoke is a bit less convincing than tourists flocking to a sunny beach.

It’s only after a major lightning storm starts even more fires that Danville and Annie realize that they need to work with Clay. By then the situation is going from bad to worse: two huge fires are converging and a million acres are on fire. Even the park manager finally grows a spine and stands up to his politician superior, at long last deciding to evacuate the park. Park rangers tell campers, who apparently don’t consider the heavy smoke everywhere to be a warning sign or even a nuisance, to get up and leave.

As the immense fire moves towards the town of West Yellowstone, Clay and the firefighters take the titular last stand by the railway tracks. The fire appears impossible to stop, until Clay comes to think of the “Burning Man” defense (very obviously planted at the beginning of the film): create a counterfire that sucks all of the oxygen from the first fire and snuffs it. The crew set fire to a row of petrol barrels, and one massive blast later the town is saved. I don’t know about the physics of this concept, but the execution isn’t very believable anyway. Any criticism you can come up with about the factuality of the piece is probably correct but I’d lie if I said I cared.

While the plot is a watered-down and utterly predictable Jaws rehash, and the characters are a selection of genre stereotypes, I still like Firestorm better than most TV disaster movies. I’m sure that to a large extent it’s just a matter of personal taste, but this reasonably competently realized piece of you-know-exactly-what-you’re-getting works as ‘comfort viewing’ for me. It ticks along, not wasting too much time on subplots you won’t care about anyway, and delivering generous amounts fire.  The CGI is rather weak but acceptable, and mixed up with stock footage and some physical effects. And when it comes to disaster movies, it’s “quantity, not quality”. (Actually it isn’t, but it sounded too good to not write it, and disaster films that skimp on the disaster content are rarely that good anyway.)

Director John Lafia will likely never win any of the more prestigious awards, but apparently has a knack for knocking out trash TV that appeal to the great unwashed. Lafia, you see, is also the man behind the quite popular earthquake movies 10.5 and 10.5: Apocalypse. This time around, the camerawork is a bit toned down after the incredibly jittery style of the 10.5 epics, which is a relief. Foley and Burgi do solid jobs in the lead roles, while few other get enough screen time to make much of an impression.

Amazingly, we don’t get one single child and/or pet in mortal danger. A couple of kids feature in the story, one teen even wandering off into the woods near a campsite to discover a flaming tree, but none of them are ever in real peril. Kind of surprising of such a clichéd film to blatantly ignore one of the most hallowed clichés.

Director Lafia’s IMDb resumé ends abruptly after Firestorm. I don’t know how to interpret that. Anyone know what he’s doing now?

Rating: 2/5

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