Dante’s Peak (1997)
Directed by: Roger Donaldson
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, Charles Hallahan, Grant Heslov, Elizabeth Hoffman
Pierce Brosnan stars as United States Geological Survey volcanologist Dr. Harry Dalton, whose vacation is cut short when he is called in to investigate possible geological activity near the town of Dante’s Peak. Not only is this quaint little town situated below a matte painting of a big volcano, it has recently been named The Second Most Desirable Place to Live in the United States (population under 20.000). Harry arrives in town just in time to see mayor Rachel Wando (played by Linda Hamilton) accept this prestigious award.
Dr. Harry gets a tour of the town by mayor Rachel and her two kids. Rachel’s obnoxiously cute daughter immediately inquires as to Harry’s family situation, making it obvious from the start that Harry and single-mother Rachel will fall in love. Harry notices signs of volcanic activity, such as acidic water, dead trees, and a couple of backpackers who have been boiled alive when making out in one of the local hot springs.
Harry urges mayor Rachel to call a meeting with the city council and prepare the residents for a possible evacuation. During the meeting Harry’s superior, Dr. Dreufys from the USGS, arrives and takes over the investigation. He also, as is expected from superiors in disaster movies, plays down Harry’s worries and tells the city council that there certainly is no need to warn the citizens (thereby risking to cause a panic and scare off a major investor eager to plow a fortune into Dante’s Peak).
Needless to say, even though the results gathered by the USGS team indicate no volcanic eruption is imminent, Harry’s hunches turn out to be right. The volcanic activity turns the town’s water supply acidic, which finally causes Dr. Dreyfus to call a town meeting and warn residents. With perfect timing, the volcano starts rumbling and spewing ashes over Dante’s Peak in the middle of the meeting, causing the townsfolk to panic and flee the city.
Unfortunately, Harry and Rachel can’t leave as her two kids – left alone while their mother attends the town meeting – have taken her car and drove up the mountain to rescue their stubborn grandmother who refuses to leave her home even in the face of a volcanic eruption. Harry and Rachel go after the kids, and for the rest of the movie we follow their attempts to get out of the inferno alive.
As the volcano comes alive is when the fun begins in this movie, but by then it is almost too late. The quakes, mudslides, ash-rains, lava flows and associated mayhem are all quite well made and fun to see, but the movie takes way too long to get there. The build-up to the actual disaster is completely generic and doesn’t generate any suspense at all, and the romantic overtures between Harry and Rachel are lukewarm at best. Simply put, the first half of the movie is boring.
Things pick up some when the ashes start raining down. As mentioned, the effects look good, and there are some nifty ideas here, like putting our heroes in a metal boat in the middle of a lake of acid. On the other hand, we have to accept some scenes that are dumb even by disaster movie standards (especially in a film that is otherwise lauded for being relatively accurate in terms of science), like Dr. Harry actually managing to drive a car through a lava flow without the tires apparently melting. Also, the bodycount is on the low side, with only two name characters kicking it.
The main problem with this movie is that it can’t really decide which genre it belongs to: is it a volcano movie with a romance, or a romantic movie with volcanic eruptions? Unfortunately for disaster movie fans, it feels more like the latter.