‘When Time Ran Out…’ (1980): A disastrous Irwin Allen disaster epic

Seeing as how Hawaii is set to blow apart any minute now, from Movies & Drinks‘s “Things Could Be WAY Worse” files comes a review of Warner Bros’ 1980 disastrous disaster epic, When Time Ran Out…, “Master of Disaster” Irwin Allen’s kick in the groin salute to horrendous moviemaking, starring Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, William “I’m Dying Right in Front of Your Eyes!” Holden, Ernest Borgnine, James Franciscus, Red Buttons, Edward Albert, Barbara Carrera, Valentina Cortese, Veronica Hamel, Burgess Meredith, John Considine, Pat Morita, and master thespian Alex Karras.

By Paul Mavis

When Time Ran Out…‘s plot, as it were, is needlessly convoluted…and entirely ripped off from every other movie Irwin Allen ever made. Paul Newman is Hank Anderson, a 55-year-old oil driller with neatly pressed dress shirt and chinos who just struck “Texas Tea” on a remote Pacific island…which looks suspiciously like the Big Island of Hawaii. This is good news, because his bankroller, equally preppy-but-somehow-slimy Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), desperately wants to show up the memory of his dead father, who was the island’s big kahuna when it came to the sugar cane business. Spangler, who also operates a crater-edge volcanic observatory (?), is married to riding crop-brandishing (?) Nikki (Veronica Hamel), but he’s having it off with native girl and hotel greeter, Iolani (Barbara Carrera), who was engaged to largely somnambulant islander Brian (Edward Albert).

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Into this heady, ridiculous mix comes wizened multi-millionaire hotelier Shelby Gilmore (William Holden), who has the hots for large-breasted Kay Kirby (Jacqueline Bisset), a gorgeous advertising executive who’s flying to Spangler’s island to help Shelby promote his new luxury hotel. But Kay isn’t going for that huge engagement rock the much-married Shelby pulled out on the plane (“What would I be? The seventh?” Kay asks. “The last,” Shelby groans). Evidently, Kay had a big thing going on with Hank, and she’s got a Hank-arin’ to get him back. All of which is fine and good, until “unusual magma movement” (I had that last night!) indicates that a hellacious explosion from that smoldering volcano, just about over there, is going to level the island…so it’s every man, woman and child for hisself as the frightened survivors—dodging earthquakes, tidal waves, flaming explosive balls of rock, and a river of magma—fight for their very lives!

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In the pre-internet days of 1980, When Time Ran Out… was one of those “big” movies that seemed to come out of nowhere at your local movie house. Of course, the modern Hollywood studios always had gigantic publicity machines working overtime to promote their products, but the media outlets hawking Tinsletown’s wares—particularly outside of the major cities—were still limited in 1980 to occasional magazine and newspaper articles, gossip columns, and maybe an interview or trailer popping up on television (in our media-saturated lives today, it’s difficult to comprehend how many people first heard about a movie when they opened up that local newspaper and looked at the Friday night theater listings). Lots of casual moviegoers probably heard some hype about “events” and “sleepers” like The Empire Strikes Back, 9 to 5, and Friday the 13th back in 1980…but even a 14-year-old movie fanatic like myself can’t recall hearing a peep about Irwin Allen’s $22 million spectacular, When Time Ran Out…, until it quietly creeped into theaters at the end of March…before slinking back out again after just a week or two (it grossed an absolutely jaw-droppingly pathetic $3 million and change–a phenomenal flop).

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Growing up, I was a huge disaster movie fan, having seen all the classics—and dogs—on the big screen. In those pre-Star Wars 70s, catching Earthquake in Sensurround and seeing The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure in the all-time greatest drive-in double feature, were truly seminal movie-going experiences for me. But even though I loved the genre, warts and all, I knew by 1980 that as a viable cycle, the all-star disaster movie was out with audiences, as low-budget horror and high-budget sci-fi grabbed their attention.

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Although I lined up for each and every disaster flick that came out, I was finding it increasingly difficult to convince any friends to come along and shell out good dough for movies like Avalanche, Gray Lady Down, The Concorde…Airport ’79, Hurricane, Meteor, The Swarm, and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure—the last two from Mr. Allen himself (I had no trouble later that summer, though, in finding pals to go laugh at the disaster parody smash hit, Airplane!—the definitive sign that the genre was over…for awhile, at least).

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It’s always a guessing game, but there’s a chance that When Time Ran Out… might have been a success if it had been produced when first announced by producer/director Irwin Allen, back in 1975, during the height of the disaster craze. Originally conceived as a period piece based on the novel, The Day the World Ended, which detailed the 1902 eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelee, The Day the World Ended was supposed to star Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Yul Brynner, and Jennifer Jones…before 20th Century-Fox pulled out in 1976 when the proposed budget went sky-high. Fox sold the project to Warner Bros. for a cool $1 million (the only guys to make any money off this stiff), but the shoot was postponed again and again as producer Allen brought in new screenwriters (absolute pros Carl Foreman and Stirling Silliphant, for god’s sake!), new actors, and a new director, the once-promising James Goldstone (after his own directorial efforts for The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, wiser heads must have prevailed on Irwin Allen to step aside on this one).

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The last time I watched When Time Ran Out…, I had a decidedly grumpy reaction to it (a lot of that attitude came from the place I was writing for at the time–oh vey those DVD Dicks), but I have to admit to laughing almost non-stop when I ran it again the other day. When Time Ran Out… isn’t a case of being “so bad it’s good”—not like Allen’s masterpiece of misguided hilarity, The Swarm—but what was once depressing about this $22 million dollar volcano movie somehow turned consistently amusing this time around.

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One has difficulty knowing exactly where to start in discussing When Time Ran Out… because almost nothing works in it, from the stars and the script, to the direction, the cinematography, the art direction and sets, the music, the editing, and the laughably inept special effects (yep…I think that’s everything). It’s just a nightmare from the get-go, and you can smell it coming a mile off (Newman was quoted saying he and the rest of the cast knew from day one that this was going to be a dog).

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Never mind that When Time Ran Out… violates the very first and most basic rule of the “line ’em up and watch ’em die” appeal of 1970s all-star disaster flicks; only two “stars” kick it here: Alex Karras and James Franciscus (I mean…thank you for that, at least, but frankly…that’s not nearly enough to satisfy me). What’s worse is that far too many elements of When Time Ran Out… are so obviously lifted from Allen’s other movies—particularly The Towering Inferno—that the effect isn’t so much repetitious but rather flat-out dopey déjà vu. Newman’s and Franciscus’ dynamic is identically fashioned from The Towering Inferno, with Franciscus the scheming, double-dealing equivalent of the weasely Richard Chamberlain. Franciscus is terrified that the rumbling volcano will scotch his deal with Holden, so he lies to him about the terrible tremors that have rocked the island (he also has “daddy issues” of matching up with his dead father, very much like Chamberlain had in Towering, matching up with his father-in-law…played by Holden—the permutations between the two movies just never end).

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Newman, of course, is the concerned professional, willing to shut down his newly successful oil rig because of the danger (just like he wanted to “shut down” the Tower when he discovered faulty wiring in Inferno), but he allows his men to stay when they tell him they need the money (creating ready-made victims just like the ones in Towering, who refused to leave the penthouse party…or like the passengers who weren’t smart enough to follow Gene Hackman in Poseidon). Newman even has a remarkably similar confrontation scene with Franciscus, where he tells him, “Well, you do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do,” which might be word-for-word from Newman’s initial confrontation scene with Chamberlain in Towering.

Holden’s role is also a carbon-copy of his previous one in Towering (although here, he’s not complicit in any death-causing deceit), while Bisset serves the same purpose as Dunaway in Towering, creating romantic tension for the Newman character (Dunaway’s dilemma was career versus love, while Bisset’s is winning back Newman after leaving him for Holden). And it’s not just the characters that are xeroxed in When Time Ran Out…, but also the basic structure of the movie and individual scenes. A luxurious building has just been built on faulty ground (faulty wiring in Towering, a top-heavy, old sea liner pushed too hard into a storm in The Poseidon Adventure), and a dedicated professional wants to close it down, but a shady schemer lies about the real danger until it’s too late. A calamitous disaster hits, and the survivors have to trek their way through the jungle (or up and down through the towering inferno, or up through the capsized S.S. Poseidon), to get to safety.

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The plugging-in of previous Allen actors doesn’t exactly help this sense of déjà vu, either, with Newman’s, Holden’s, Borgnine’s, and Buttons’ appearances only setting up the audience for expectations When Time Ran Out… is woefully unable to meet (Borgnine’s treatment—set on fire and then made blind, with his face almost completely covered for the majority of the movie—is particularly ignominious, considering his contribution to Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure). And when the expectations finally die away (at about the ten minute mark into the movie), we’re left to contemplate the actual performances. And hoo-boy do they stink.

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Newman, looking comically stiff and uncomfortable in many scenes (he can barely get up that ramp in the observatory), clearly telegraphs his displeasure with this groaner (apparently, he had to take this because he owed Allen a movie, after The Towering Inferno), while Bisset pulls faces and grimaces in an effort to appear jauntily charming—an act that doesn’t suggest sexiness as much as an indiscreet case of gas (boy did she blow her post-The Deep career momentum…). As for Holden…he’s just flat-out scary. Wizened almost beyond recognition (it’s unfathomable that he’s only 61-years-old here!), with dead eyes that can suddenly go crazy bright, it’s clear the actor is suffering under some kind of malady (otherwise known as “the hooch”)—a sad and embarrassing sight for someone who, just five years earlier, had turned in one of the greatest performances of his career, in Network. Apparently, a cripplingly drunk Holden scared everyone, including Newman, on the When Time Ran Out… set, acting irrationally and physically pushing actors around because he thought he was the movie’s lead (Holden would die from an alcohol-related accident the next year).

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It’s no wonder, though, that all these talented performers look so bad when one hears the horrendous dialogue they’re given. When Time Ran Out… is a veritable treasure trove of inane exchanges, many of which highlight not only the poor scripting but the nonsensical plot (how any of this came from pros like Foreman and Silliphant is one of When Time Ran Out…’s great mysteries). I don’t know anything about active, ready-to-explode volcanoes, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to build a multi-million dollar observatory right on the edge of one, with a cantilevered diving-bell on wires that drops down into the middle of it. But I suppose if you’re going to have that…don’t make the bottom of the diving-bell out of glass (it’s such a chintzy looking prop, too—where’d that $22 million go?).

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As Newman, Franciscus and technician John Considine descend into the volcano, they start to sweat, with Newman intoning, “Better call upstairs; see what they can do about this heat,” (I remember my kid dying laughing at that one). Of course, Considine falls through the glass bottom (wouldn’t his legs have been melted off?) after the diving-bell almost drops into the lava, with the earth tremors knocking the boys around like the Three Stooges in there. Coming back up to the surface thanks to Alex Karras (where’s George Kennedy?) actually hand-cranking the multi-ton thing up—Newman asks, “What happened?” to which Franciscus replies, “I don’t know.” Here’s the answer, you morons: you both fell into an active volcano.

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Newman’s and Bisset’s romantic encounters are no less unbelievable. Newman, acknowledging the power of Bisset’s sexual allure, initially tries to fend off her advances with this bon mot, “Why don’t you shave your head, grow a moustache, and put on about 150 pounds so I’ve got some reason to throw you the hell out of here,” to which Bisset responds helpfully, “You don’t mean that, do you?” Later, they have a picnic on the beach, where Newman makes Bisset hysterical with his stories of teaching needlepoint in college (jesus), with her offering, “I don’t need wine; you get me drunk,” to which Newman replies, “I really like the way you laugh. I like the way you listen, too…come over here,” with their awkward kiss interrupted by a powerful explosion (no, not that—the volcano).

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As for When Time Ran Out…’s art direction and special effects, they’re as painfully undernourished as the dialogue. Director James Goldstone (who did so well with Sensurround’s Rollercoaster in ’77), can’t seem to impart any sense of size or scale to the proceedings, which isn’t surprising when you see what he’s given to work with here. The few sets he has are curiously sparse-looking, while the special effects ain’t so special. The first time we see the smoldering volcano off in the distance, the abysmal matting approximates those puff, puff papier-mâché volcanoes we made back in your seventh-grade science fairs.

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And when Newman rescues some natives who hang onto the skids of his copter, one of course falls into the volcano—seemingly sideways—in a matte effect that wouldn’t have passed muster on Allen’s Lost in Space (if Newman warns the guy that the air over the volcano is going to get rough and to hang on…why does he then proceed to fly right over the volcano? He couldn’t go around it? It’s a helicopter, for chrissake— it can maneuver). As for the tidal wave sequence that wipes out the town where Newman’s riggers have cock fights (make your own joke) with Arnold from Happy Days, that sequence has been virtually eliminated from this 109 minute version: a blessing considering the jackass matte work (WB’s Archive Collection version of When Time Ran Out… is missing 12 minutes of footage from the 1980 theatrical release print—a big mistake for lovers of all things Irwin Allen. Too bad someone did find that cut…or even better, the 141 minute television version that was released only on VHS).

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As for When Time Ran Out…‘s big set-piece, the infamous “lava river crossing,” where the actors go back and forth over a footbridge that spans the lava flow (Burgess Meredith’s a tightrope walker….Yep.), it’s at first alarming when one sees how foreshortened the set actually looks (that phony baloney backdrop can’t be more than twenty feet from the actors), with the coarse lighting making the set look like the inside of the old Disneyworld Polynesian Resort restaurant. The decision to make the endless crossing and re-crossing of this footbridge the finale of the movie (it runs an interminable 20 minutes) is perhaps the cruelest joke in When Time Ran Out…, made worse by the laughable framing and blocking of the sequence.

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In Allen’s masterpieces, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure—directed by professional helmers, importantly—there were simultaneous, multiple levels of believable action within the various sequences, giving those epics a “depth of engagement,” if you will, that still keep them fascinating today, despite the advance in movie special effects. This paltry sequence in When Time Ran Out…, however, which doesn’t make much sense, anyway (maybe it was a visual failure in achieving some scale, but wouldn’t that lava flow just about melt them on that bridge?), is so grimly linear and stunted in its reach, that as the minutes pile on and we realize that the movie is going to end soon, and that this, this, is going to be the big finish, we finally understand that When Time Ran Out… can’t deliver even the most basic, humdrum thrills that are required of any actioner—let alone one from the “Master of Disaster,” Irwin Allen. All of this together is humorously inept, but strangely, it becomes an almost poignant, sad moment, a moment that you can definitively mark as the end of a former powerhouse producer’s feature film career; a producer who had consistently delivered the goods, time and time again. With When Time Ran Out…‘s total artistic and commercial failure, time had indeed run out for Irwin Allen, at least on the nation’s big screens, and he was summarily sent back to whence he came: tiny, confining television.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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2 thoughts on “‘When Time Ran Out…’ (1980): A disastrous Irwin Allen disaster epic

  1. At this point, people were getting tired of the disaster genre. But, yeah, the movie is pretty bad. It’s as if Allen completely gave up and stopped caring about quality. Beyond the Poseidon Adventure was pretty sub-par too. Sad, because The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure are genuinely good movies.

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