Before there was Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made Joe Versus the Volcano, a film with lasting value that could help save your soul if you don’t watch out.

The plot goes thusly: Tom Hanks plays Joe, a hypochondriac with a dead-end job he hates. He is isolated and depressed and his life just doesn’t seem much worth living. In the meantime in the world abroad, a rich businessman who has a deal with an island people runs into trouble. The islanders won’t do business with him because their god demands a sacrifice and they can’t find one from among their own ranks. So the rich guy rigs Joe’s doctors appointment and has his personal doctor diagnose Joe with the dealy disease of “Brain Cloud.” Joe is almost happy to have a disease to justify his unhappiness and doesn’t really question the shady diagnosis.

Step 2 is that the rich guy comes and offers Joe a chance to be the sacrifice and briefly “live like a king, die like a man.” Joe gladly quits his job, and soon sets sail to the island with Meg Ryan’s character Patricia piloting the ship. Along the way they get into a wreck, fall in love, but finally arrive in at the island where Joe must face his destiny with Patricia at his side.

I won’t go on and spoil any of the plot because you’ve got to see this film if you’re the kind of person who read Mere-O posts.

The film is ripe with symbolism and the overarching theme that the way to live is to courageously lose yourself, letting go of your fears and selfishness and to actively seek the good, trusting in providence (the film basically implies God) to watch over and protect you.

My favorite scene in the film – and one of the better scenes I’ve ever seen at all – is when Joe and Patricia are drifting in the ocean. Patricia is unconscious, and Joe is starting to become weak and dehydrated as he has given her all of the water. Late one night as he is staring up at the stars the moon begins to peek over the horizon. It rises into a great silver mass right in front of the overawed Joe, who struggles to his feet and fJoe Sees the Mooninally lifts his arms above his head, revelling in the beauty before him. Then he prays, “Dear God, whose name i do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big…thank you, thank you for my life!”

I don’t really know what’s going on with the “whose name I do not know” part, but if you have ever been keenly aware of beauty similar words may have fallen from your lips. This recognition of the glory of creation instantly turns our minds to that which is greater than us – our God.

All that to say, it is surprising to find a film from the early nineties so saturated with Christian themes. It’s pretty goofy and corny, but that’s nothing different from classic comedies of the past and doesn’t mean there aren’t deep layers of meaning buried in the humor – think Aristophanes or Shakespeare. This is definitely a film that will make you remember and be thankful for this great gift of life! If you let it, it might make you a Manalive.

P.S. Apparently, there are whole websites devoted to the layers of meaning in this movie like this one.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. Good review, Andrew. I’m actually persuaded.


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