Masters Of Disaster returns with Jonathon Dabell looking at Dante’s Peak (1997), starring Pierce Brosan and Linda Hamilton.
In the mid-90s, film-makers began to realise that thanks to recent advances in special effects technology they could pretty much depict whatever they wanted on screen. In the past, certain genres had priced themselves out of existence – chiefly historical epics and musicals (which were simply too expensive to put together) and disaster movies (which were too expensive to make convincing and realistic-looking). The rapid developments in CGI and other visual processes re-opened the door for many of these sorts of films, and suddenly there was a new-found hunger for historical epics (Gladiator, Troy, etc.) and the whole disaster genre. Not that I’m in any way advocating CGI as an amazing process which makes everything look totally authentic (in fact, a lot of CGI looks downright crummy – check out those crocodiles in the Schwarzenegger actioner Eraser, for example), but its existence undoubtedly got studios and directors considering genres which had laid dormant for years.
Movies like Dante’s Peak, Daylight, Volcano and Deep Impact emerged as disaster entries in the traditional mould; while films like Twister, Independence Day, Turbulence and Armageddon slotted into other genres, but had more than a whiff of ‘disaster movie’ about them.
In this review we take a look at Dante’s Peak, one of two volcano-themed films from 1997 (Volcano being the other) and probably the first of note since the disastrous all-star bomb When Time Ran Out (1980).
Vulcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) comes to the thriving town of Dante’s Peak in Washington state, named after the huge dormant volcano which towers above it. His job is to routinely check seismic activity in the area. The town is celebrating the anniversary of its founding, and during the festivities Harry meets the mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton).
After discovering the corpses of a couple of bathers in a local geyser, Harry calls in his team to carry out a closer check on volcanic activity in the region. They find little to be worried about and prepare to leave the town. Harry is less convinced, having developed a “sixth sense” about such things after the death of his partner Marianne during an earlier eruption in Colombia.
Sure enough, upon discovering that the town’s water supply is contaminated with volcanic residue Harry realises that the volcano is showing signs of blowing its top imminently. Right on cue the eruption begins, triggering a panicky mass evacuation. Rachel discovers that her two young kids have headed up the mountain to rescue their grandmother, and feels compelled to go after them. Harry goes with her… but the clock is ticking, and at any moment Dante’s Peak threatens to explode in a pyroclastic fireball like nothing the world has ever seen…
The narrative of Dante’s Peak is remarkably old-fashioned – two decades may have have elapsed since the original disaster cycle, but the characters and situations remain exactly the same in this modern-day entry. Performance-wise, the film requires statements and postures from its actors rather than any real depth of emotion or character, and they play it accordingly. Brosnan and Hamilton are likable presences with a degree of natural charisma, and they use this to the film’s advantage. But anyone watching the film is well aware that the real star is the mountain – it’s all about waiting for Dante’s Peak to blow its top; the whole movie is essentially a build-up to a big bang, replete with every new-fangled Hollywood CGI effect money can buy. At $116 million, the film makes sure it provides plenty of bang for its bucks.
While the final twenty minutes or so of the film are pretty gripping, and the eruption looks admittedly convincing, the lack of depth hurts the film. In the very best disaster movies – like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Juggernaut – you feel as if you really know the protagonists; moreover, you feel like they’re real people, not cardboard cut-outs. This in turn encourages you to invest a level of interest in what happens to them. That kind of investment is missing from Dante’s Peak. The explosion is interesting, but the fate of the characters is not. It’s spectacular but rather hollow.
If you like your films big, loud and spectacular, Dante’s Peak may tick the boxes for you. If, however, you like a movie with a bit more meat on its story and characters, this one is found wanting. It’s a long haul to the climactic mayhem… but when it finally arrives, the explosive finale does at last provide some recompense for the tedium that has gone before.
MoM Rating: 5/10