Dante's Peak

Disasters and AccidentsVolcanic EruptionsEntertainmentMoviesPoliticsRegional AuthorityPierce Brosnan

Friday February 7, 1997

     Disaster movies have become Hollywood's version of the seven plagues, a series of natural catastrophes inflicted by the lords of studio misrule on defenseless audiences who can do no more than hope to survive and then survey the damage.
     After wind ("Twister"), water ("Daylight") and alien invasion ("Independence Day"), the latest plague to make the rounds is volcanic eruption. "God's big show" hasn't been dealt with since "The Last Days of Pompeii" and "Krakatoa, East of Java," which was most notable for not understanding that Krakatoa is in fact west of Java.
     "Dante's Peak" is customary for the genre, with convincing special effects sharing screen time with standard-issue characters and situations. Despite being directed by Roger Donaldson, apparently a geologist manque, and with three PhDs listed as "volcanology advisors," this is still the kind of movie where someone's darn dog runs off at the worst possible moment.
     One of the things "Dante's Peak" does demonstrate is that the volcanic act itself, accompanied as it is by massive clouds of the most impenetrable black smoke, is not ideal disaster movie material. And that's not even mentioning the avalanche of snowy ash that makes the appearance of Sgt. Preston of the Yukon seem imminent.
     When it comes to the flow of superheated lava, which ought to be the movie's signature element, "Dante's Peak" is curiously coy. Though computer-generated lava is certainly a factor, at one point impressively setting a cabin and surrounding forest on fire, its screen time is limited, more like a cameo appearance than the starring role it deserves.
     "Dante's Peak" treats its volcanic eruption as if it were a mass murderer stalking a small town. Ominous music makes the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen unavoidable, but the potential victims in Leslie ("Daylight") Bohem's predictable script are blithely oblivious to the danger they're facing. Except for Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), a steely eyed volcanologist who's let a bad experience he had when a mountain blew up under him in Latin America turn him into a tireless workaholic "better about volcanoes than people" who neither smiles nor takes vacations.
     Harry has been dispatched by the U.S. Geological Survey to the bucolic Pacific Northwest town of Dante's Peak to check out some suspicious readings. It turns out to be a swell spot, celebrated by Money Magazine, "beautiful, safe, a wonderful place to raise a family," according to mayor-single mom Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), a town so attractive that powerful Blair Industries is about to invest $18 million in hundreds of new jobs.
     Not so fast, says Harry. Even though the odds are 10,000-to-1 against it, he feels the dormant volcano that gives the town its name is a ticking time bomb. Harry's timid boss Paul Dreyfus (Charles Hallahan) says he's out of line, the mayor's cranky mother-in-law (Elizabeth Hoffman) agrees, but Harry, apparently the only person in the film who got an advance copy of the script, keeps insisting that Dante's Peak is going to blow.
     When, after an hour of clearing its throat, the inevitable finally happens, "Dante's Peak" becomes not so much a volcano movie as a smorgasbord of selections from other disaster spectaculars. Buildings collapse, rivers go wild, freeway ramps and bridges buckle, crowds panic, and the mayor's cute kids conveniently head right into harm's way. Where's a little extra lava when you need it most?

Dante's Peak, 1997. PG-13, for disaster-related peril and gore. A Pacific Western production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Roger Donaldson. Producers Gale Anne Hurd, Joseph M. Singer. Executive producer Ilona Herzberg. Screenplay Leslie Bohem. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editors Howard Smith, Conrad Buff, Tina Hirsch. Costumes Isis Mussenden. Music John Frizzell. Production design Dennis Washington. Art directors Tom Tagownik Taylor, Francis J. Pezza. Set decorator Marvin March. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Pierce Brosnan as Harry Dalton. Linda Hamilton as Rachel Wando. Jamie Renee Smith as Lauren Wando. Jeremy Foley as Graham Wando. Elizabeth Hoffman as Ruth. Charles Hallahan as Paul Dreyfus.

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