Dante's Peak (1997)

I've always been better at feeling out volcanoes than people and politics.
--Pierce Brosnan's character

Making a disaster movie is very simple.

Step one: think up some stock characters of varying stock personalities. They can be any type of person you want, but try and include one or two children, someone in a position of power like an army sergeant, city mayor or president, and a scientist or otherwise really smart guy whom nobody will listen to until the disaster happens.

Step two: give them something going horribly wrong to react to. This can be either man-made, natural or supernatural. Examples include a massive explosion, a giant meteor shower, a major earthquake, a plane about to crash, a boat about to sink, an animal attack, nuclear holocaust, alien invasion, or if you're Roland Emmerich, the whole world blowing up.

Step three: spend the first part of the movie developing these characters while setting them up for their impending doom. These characters will be survivors, so make sure that the best-known actors in your cast play them.

Step four: after a senses-assaulting barrage of special effects, show your characters' human strengths and/or weaknesses by having them either cope with the aftermath or try to escape before something even worse happens. Have two of them fall in love with each other along the way. While it is okay to kill off all your extras, make sure that most of your best-known actors live at the end, as well as any children or pets in your group of survivors.

Every disaster movie ever made, or at least all of the ones I've seen, follow this formula. Example: Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure. 1972. The characters: Gene Hackman plays a priest, Ernest Borgnine plays a cop who marries an ex-prostitute, Shelley Winters and Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory play an elderly Jewish couple, Leslie Neilsen plays a ship's captain, plus two children. The disaster: a tsunami capsizes the ocean liner they are all traveling to Europe in. The aftermath: they must all now make their way to the resurfaced bottom of the boat and try and escape before the ship sinks completely. The end result: Ernest, Grandpa Joe and the kids survive, as do a waiter and a singer in their party who both fall in love with each other.

This method, however, does not guarantee that the disaster movie you're making will be a good one. There are much more important factors than the ones listed above - scientific accuracy, plausibility, the quality of the script and the special effects, things like that.

For instance, a movie about a disaster such as, say, a volcano in the Pacific Northwest would be logical. We learned that in 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted.

On the other hand, a movie about a volcano in Los Angeles, a city sitting next to a fault where tectonic plates move past each other and do not produce ash or magma, is not.

If you've read my review of Volcano, one of many late-90s disaster flicks that were all sound and fury signifying nothing, you may have caught on a couple of references to another film from 1997--namely, Dante's Peak, another volcano disaster movie from 1997, released by Universal in February of that year (two months before that OTHER film), practically a more tolerable and slightly more scientifically accurate film, and also the more financially successful offering.

And yet of the two it has a lower rating on the Tomatometer.

Where is the justice?

Looking at the film's vital statistics alone gave me more hope for this movie. For instance, Volcano just had Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. Sure Jones would fight aliens as a Man in Black that summer, but he was practically the only thing propping up that film. Dante's Peak went and got two people more experienced with disaster--JAMES BOND and SARAH CONNOR.

All right, Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton.  But you must admit, that still sounded awesome.

"I've saved the world from corrupt media moguls, rogue secret agents and mad oil heiresses!"

"Big deal! I'VE saved HUMANITY'S FUTURE from a evil robot uprising!"

Pierce plays a widowed volcanologist who must warn the residents of a small rural town in Washington* state sitting dangerously close to a dormant volcanic mountain that it is about to explode. Linda plays the mayor of said small rural town in Washington state sitting dangerously close to said dormant volcanic mountain that is about to explode.

Typically, nobody seems to be in the mood to listen to Pierce as the town is in the middle of their Pioneer Days Festival and is right now enjoying the boost in tourism. See, Dante's Peak (that's the name of the town, incidentally, I thought I should mention that) is not a very big city, with a population of just under 8,000 people, and they're not about to let something as minor as a dormant volcanic mountain that is about to explode sink the local economy. This is particularly emphasized by Pierce's boss, played by Charles Hallahan of John Carpenter's The Thing, who adamantly refuses to listen to him, telling him they are only here to observe, not drive a thriving small mountain town to financial ruin.

Even if he does find two vacationing lovebirds boiled alive in the nearby hot springs (a raise in temperature of geothermal waters doesn't always signal a volcanic eruption but for the sake of the plot let's say it does) as well as an unusual number of dead squirrels lying around.

Oh well, at least while Pierce tries to convince everyone they're in danger while the USGS team he brought with him monitors the volcano, he can get to know Linda.

We're sitting at the foot of a dormant volcano and we're not moving! Whoopee!

Only when Linda's youngest daughter asks for a glass of water do they finally realize that maybe Pierce has a point after they discover that sulfur dioxide has leaked into the drinking water. Next thing you know, Linda's on local news telling people we're in danger and the city council is finally persuaded to get off their asses and do something.

Rather coincidentally, the townspeople are meeting at the high school gymnasium discussing an evacuation procedure when the time comes for the disaster that they are supposed to be evacuating ahead of to occur. Of course, volcanic tremors don't usually cause earthquakes strong enough to break a small town to pieces, but for the sake of this movie we need something for the extras to run around in a panic in, so let's give them a major earthquake to knock over buildings and splinter freeway overpasses.

Meanwhile, Pat Robertson watches the news, aware that Washington state has legalized marijuana, and smiles approvingly.

And once again, we have the trope of children whose sense of self-preservation utterly fails them. Linda's two kids, worried about their grandmother who lives in a house up the dormant volcanic mountain and refuses to evacuate, hop in a truck once the mountain explodes and drive off by themselves to pick her up. Never mind the fact that they're too young to operate a motor vehicle, the roads are clearly not safe and the ash fall is so thick that even with the headlights on, they can't see where they're going.

And speaking of ash fall, remember that scene in Volcano where they had helicopters flying around the eruption in a hail of cinders? Well, this movie demonstrates the danger of doing that - a helicopter pilot charging money to airlift evacuees out of harm's way fails to take into account that the ash could get sucked into and clog the engine and promptly crashes in a fiery explosion, killing all on board.


The fools. Will they ever learn?

And when the kids, Linda and Pierce finally meet up at Grandma's house and all must flee when the building succumbs to a river of lava (Pacific Northwest volcanoes don't produce lava that flows that freely, and certainly not at the same time as ash), they take a speedboat to the other side of the lake to escape the magma when they realize the water has turned to acid and it's slowly eating away at the boat. Well, when I say "slowly", I should really be saying "instantaneously." Once the propeller to the engine is eaten away (that would slow them down more, to be honest) , the grandmother steps off the boat and into the water to pull the rest of them to the shore on the other side.

Then she collapses and dies two scenes later and everyone stands around her having a really good Hollywood cry.

So other than that, how was the trip to Grandma's house?

Then Pierce finds and hotwires an abandoned truck at a nearby ranger station and must drive across an insanely hot river of debris, ash and fire that is blocking their path. Despite the fact that their tires immediately burst into flames, and that the heat from the lava is turning the undercarriage into undercarriage soup, which normally would strand them in the lava as the intense heat bakes them all to death, they somehow manage to get across it just fine. They even have time to rescue the family dog, who ran off after the initial eruption and suddenly reappeared on a solitary boulder stranded in the river of fire.

As for Pierce's boss, he pays the price for not listening to him when his team tries to flee across a rickety bridge crossing a muddy lahar that proves too much for it. His van is stuck when the bridge breaks apart and his crew watches as it topples, tossing him into the mudflow with a Wilhelm scream.

Bet you wish you'd listened to him NOW.

Finally as the mountain violently explodes sending ash clouds thundering down the mountain demolishing everything in its path, Pierce, Linda and the kids race through the streets OUTRUNNING THE ASH CLOUDS CLEARLY MOVING FASTER THAN THEY ARE and eventually seek refuge in an abandoned mine as the entire town is destroyed. Luckily, Pierce had the foresight to pick up a beacon device designed by NASA that his team had brought along with him just before they escaped, so that when he's trapped in the truck and separated from Linda and her family when the mine partially collapses, he can signal for help.

In another one of those will-they-make-it-or-won't-they moments where you already know they'll all be rescued alive, they're all rescued alive and airlifted out of the scene, discussing plans for a deep-sea fishing trip.

And now for dramatic effect, here's a random shot of a child crying.
That other movie made you feel sorry for a PIG in BANDAGES.

Dante's Peak doesn't necessarily offer anything original to the disaster genre. Most if not every cliche we covered at the start of this review is present and accounted for, and watching it feels like we're checking off each of the little boxes. There is sentimentality, there are special effects aplenty, and there are times when the plot follows movie laws of physics instead of actual real-life laws of physics. There's even a gratuitous scene of a pet in danger. The characters weren't even interesting enough for me to remember all their names. It's a typical, by-the-book disaster flick.

Still, it's much better than that Tommy Lee Jones crapshoot. No shoehorned social commentary, no on-the-spot obvious news coverage every twenty seconds, the kids are less annoying, the heroics aren't overdramatized, the science is slightly more accurate, the dialogue is more tolerable, there's no improbably stupid miracle plan to save the town like lava-resistant concrete freeway barriers and swimming pool water...they even go as far as telling you why flying a helicopter around a volcanic eruption with heavy ash fall is bad.

There are worse disaster movies out there than Dante's Peak. Granted, there are BETTER disaster movies as well, but I'll give this one a Mulligan.

Aww, man. I wanted one of those funnel cakes.

(Source of geological information specific to this movie: http://www.geol.umd.edu/facilities/lmdr/dante/dante.htm)

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