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Volcanologists Survey ‘Dante’s Peak’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Universal Pictures invited hundreds of volcanologists and other scientists to free screenings of its film “Dante’s Peak” in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Honolulu last week, hoping for a good reception and getting a mixed one.

Most of the scientists seemed to like parts of the movie, particularly its depiction of a U.S. Geological Survey team at work, its demonstration of volcanic power and some of the special effects.

But most of the dozen volcano experts interviewed at length after the screenings faulted the film for exaggerations and for compressing what happened at the mythical peak in the Cascade range to a time frame that was far too short. (The film grossed $18.5 million in its opening weekend; see box-office report, F3.)

Universal hired three retired Geological Survey volcanologists as consultants on the movie and has stated publicly that “the filmmakers insisted on scrupulous realism” regarding the volcanic details.

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“We wanted to create an unforgettable experience,” declared executive producer Ilona Herzberg, “but also stick close to scientific fact.”

The scientists, while complimentary in some ways, seemed to feel the film falls short of that.

Bob Tilling, chief scientist of the Geological Survey’s volcanic hazards team nationwide, said that “overall, I thought it was pretty decent, wholesome entertainment. It is not a documentary by any means. . . .

“The monitoring team sent to Dante’s Peak looked like people I’ve worked with. The techniques they used, the bantering over coffee, was very accurate.

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“But the tremendous earthquakes they showed were somewhat implausible. The pre-eruptive seismicity was on an order we just do not see.”

Tilling also was bothered by a scene showing a boat being melted and a grandmother mortally burned trying to flee the eruption across a lake that has turned to acid.

“There are some very highly acid lakes in the craters of volcanoes,” he observed. “However, in the movie, the rapidity of the lake becoming so acidic is not realistic. It takes time for acidic gases to get into the water. That was quite implausible.”

David Hill, chief of Geological Survey volcanic monitoring at the Long Valley caldera near Mammoth Lakes, noted that Dante’s Peak, dormant for 7,000 years, seems in the movie “to pop into life very quickly.”

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“In that part of the movie, time was really collapsed, in probably a way that was unreasonable,” Hill said.

“The special effects were really impressively done, and especially the pyroclastic flow [of hot rocks and gases]. But those Hawaii-type lava flows really don’t fit in with that kind of volcanic eruption. It was a non sequitur. Most of my colleagues remarked on the unlikely combination of the explosive eruption and the lava flows.”

Not everyone agreed that the volcano in the movie comes to life too quickly.

Jim Mori, scientist-in-charge of the Geological Survey’s Pasadena field office and a veteran volcano watcher, noted that in recent eruptions at Rabaul in the South Pacific “there was only two days warning, and off Japan in recent years there wasn’t much.”

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Dan Dzurisin, scientist-in-charge at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., said he felt “in many ways, the film hits the mark.”

“There certainly is some license taken in combining a whole smorgasbord of volcanic processes that wouldn’t take place all at once. But there are such cities in the Cascades and elsewhere that the Geological Survey is keeping an eye on.”

It is true, Dzurisin said, that as the protagonist in “Dante’s Peak” says at the outset, the odds are 10,000 to 1 against an eruption occurring.

“The probabilities are indeed that high when a volcano is not restless,” said the scientist. “But as soon as it becomes restless, then the odds decrease dramatically. As soon as the first earthquakes are noticed, then the possibilities sharply increase.”

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Some scientists who saw the movie felt it was altogether wholesome, as a warning to exposed communities, to depict volcanoes as potentially dangerous even if they have not erupted in thousands of years.

And they particularly liked the sometimes fractious interaction among the volcanologists themselves, and between the Geological Survey team and the town’s political leaders as they debate whether to call an alert. They viewed this as realistic.

What was unrealistic, they said, was that once precursory signs of an eruption became all too clear late one evening, there was a wait until 6 p.m. the next day to call a public meeting about evacuating the town.

Emerging from the screening in L.A. Thursday night, a group of Caltech and Geological Survey scientists seemed in a joking mood.

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“I just wish they had offed one of those politicians in Congress who are always trying to cut back on survey funding,” quipped a Caltech scientist who asked not to be identified.

Kevin Scott, an expert on the Mt. Rainier volcano in Washington state, said Cascades Volcano Observatory scientists gathered after seeing the movie and gave grades to many of its aspects. Most of them were B-plus or A-minus. Still, he added, “there’s a lot of dramatic license there. . . . The incineration of the people in the spring and the lake becoming so acid as to melt a boat are pretty farfetched.”


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