Dante’s Peak was one of the films that I grew up with. We had it on video when VHS was a thing and because my Mum had a crush on Pierce Brosnan (which I later inherited), we watched it any chance we got. I liked the film because it’s about a volcano and I had a weird interest in volcanoes when I was a kid. I honestly don’t know why but it’s something that I’ve carried into adulthood and any disaster film centred around volcanoes immediately grasps my attention. So, what could be better than a volcano related disaster film starring Sarah Connor and James Bond?
Of course, I mean Linda Hamilton and the aforementioned Pierce Brosnan but now in my old age of 24, I couldn’t tell you why, but I think that’s weird. For a start, these two had become big names by the 90’s and Dante’s Peak is not the kind of film that I’d picture them both starring in. It’s not a criticism, it’s just…. Do you know what I mean? The whole film cost $116 Million to make but it doesn’t look like a $116 Million film. Again, it’s not a criticism. Ugh, I give up. Plot time. Naturally, there are spoiler warnings.
4 years after the death of his girlfriend during a volcanic eruption in Columbia, Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) is called in by his employers, the USGS (The United States Geological Survey) to inspect some seismic goings on in the town of Dante’s Peak. He quickly strikes a friendship with the town’s mayor, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) and her two children, Graham (Jeremy Foley) and his younger sister, Lauren (Jamie Renee Smith). All seems quiet in the small town and Harry is the only one to suspect that the volcano means business.
Let me just go back to the casting for a second. To me, Linda Hamilton was great casting although I am suspicious because one of the producers for this film was Gale Anne Hurd who also produced ‘Terminator (1984)’ which Linda Hamilton also starred in. The point is that Linda Hamilton has played strong characters in the past and she’s very good at it. She’s someone who can accurately portray a business owner, a single mother and the mayor of a small town all in one go. BUT, I am sceptical of the choice of Pierce Brosnan. Do not get me wrong, I adore Pierce Brosnan and he did a great job in this film BUT… go with me on this… when you picture a scientist, what do you see? Personally, I see tall, gangly, glasses, basically I don’t picture ‘James Bond’.
Speaking of, I can understand the decision from a marketing point of view. Pierce Brosnan had already done one ‘Bond’ film in 1995 with ‘Goldeneye’ and he was already scheduled to do another and from the fans point of view, they were happy with Pierce Brosnan. So, when you’re casting and ‘Bond’ is interested in playing the male lead in your disaster flick, you’re hardly going to say ‘no’ since he’s going to draw in the crowds. Pierce Brosnan has himself said that after doing the first ‘Bond’ film, he wanted to leave himself open to playing other roles which is totally admirable and I get that BUT when you play such an iconic character, there is always the danger that you’re going to get type-cast. It comes with the territory. It’s the same with things like ‘Doctor Who’. You can bang on all you like about ‘not wanting to be type-cast’ but as soon as you step into the TARDIS, you’re ‘The Doctor’ for life.
Anyway, the script is an interesting mistress. It’s both tight and cliched at the same time. It is tight in that the characters are well-rounded and I didn’t hate any of them, there are some dodgy lines here and there but overall, the script is fine. But the script does hold some cliches because it contains a lot of the ‘disaster movie’ traits that we hold dear today, the scientist who thinks something is wrong but no one will listen and there’s the balance of power between Harry and his boss and that one ‘backstory’ that I’ve heard more than once in volcano films.
Harry and Rachel find two people burnt to death in a hot springs and so Harry calls the council together to consider advising the citizens on the possibility of evacuating if the shit hits the fan. The council don’t want to because it will frighten off an investor who’s turned up and Harry’s boss, Paul (Charles Hallahan) doesn’t want to because there was once a volcano that showed similar signs of life but then nothing happened but the towns folk and tourists heard about the concerns and so they stayed away, nearly resulting in the town going bankrupt. As a result, the USGS won’t put the town on alert until they are absolutely sure.
This calls into real-life. I’m not sure if they had a real volcanologist on hand as a consultant, I’m assuming they did but volcanoes are notoriously difficult to predict. One example that is constantly banded around is ‘Mount St Helens’ that violently erupted in 1980 and with very little warning. You see, ‘Mount St Helens’ is used in this film in the same way that ‘9/11’ is used in almost every American, political, carnage drama type thing like ‘Designated Survivor’. It’s the one real-life event that is used to put the fictional event into context.
In fact, Mount St Helens was used for some establishing shots in the ‘crater scenes’. I find those scenes hard to believe. There’s one scene where Harry and his colleague, Terry (Kirk Trutner) are flying around in a helicopter to take some gas-readings from the volcano. That’s fine but later on, there’s a scene where Harry and Terry are actually standing on the rim of the volcanic crater, watching a robot head down into the crater. Personally, if I were Harry and I was convinced that this volcano was showing signs of life and my boss told me to stand on the crater of a possibly active volcano, my response would be, ‘Fuck that! I’m not going up there’. The funniest thing is that the robot is sent down when it’s too dangerous for the team. I hate to tell you guys, but when you stand on the rim of a volcano, you’re still in the danger zone.
Now that I think about it, this film has a bit of a ‘flimsy’ relationship with ‘scientific fact’ which is fine, a great many natural disaster films do it. In fact, films do it in general. Sacrificing some facts in exchange for exciting, dramatic sequences are the norm.
There are some ‘nit-picky’ things that I could point out such as the ‘sound’ issue. It’s said that the town is nuzzled up, right at the base of the volcano. One of the characters compares the town to ‘Pompeii’. When a volcano erupts with explosive force, it’s an ‘ear-shattering’ experience. When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, the blast was heard up to 3000 miles away and it is said that anyone within 16KM of the volcano went deaf. Ok, this is an extreme example since ‘Krakatoa’ was one of the most violent eruptions in history just short of a ‘super eruption’, reaching VEI 7 out of 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index but, do you see my point?
Another point is volcanic ash. Volcanic ash is a continuous, hazardous element of an eruption and this movie doesn’t seem to care. Rachel’s kids go up the mountain to rescue their grandmother, Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman) from her lodge. Rachel and Harry go in their pursuit. But as soon as they arrive, they’re running around in the volcanic ash. The ash in the film is actually burnt newspaper but if you run around in real volcanic ash then the chances are, you’d die. Inhaling volcanic ash is disastrous as the ash mixes with the moisture in your lungs and you drown in liquid concrete. If the ash gets into your eyes, since it’s tiny pieces of rock, it can blind you. And yet, the characters are running around in the ash, not covering their mouths and even more bizarrely, the ash fall seems to stop at certain periods and then return. I’m not sure that’s how it works.
The second most tense sequence in the film is the escape from the lodge. Ruth’s house and all the character’s vehicles are destroyed by a lava flow and so the characters have no other option than to escape by boat. However, the volcanic activity has turned the lake into acid due to the extreme levels of sulphur being ejected by the volcano. This was alluded to earlier on when Harry is checking the acidity levels in the lake. Since the boat is made of metal, the acid starts eating away at the boat and dissolves the motor. Harry then takes off his jacket, wraps it around his arm and proceeds to paddle them to the shore. Again, I’m not sure that’s how that works. If your arm is covered, then you’re immune from the acid? In several shots, his shirt is wet as he’s splashing himself with the acidic water and… how is he not being burned? But, when Ruth jumps into the water and drags the boat to shore, her legs are all burned. Surely, she should be fine. She was wearing jeans.
This film features all elements of a volcanic eruption; ash clouds, earthquakes, lahars (volcanic mudflows and floods), lava flows and of course, the big one. The Pyroclastic Surge which is without a doubt the deadliest and most pant-browning stage of a volcanic eruption.
The pyroclastic surge happens when the pressure holding the eruptive column in the air dips for a moment, causing pressurised, red-hot magma to flow down the side of the volcano. Surges are fast and deadly with temperatures exceeding 800 degrees Celsius, capable of incinerating anything and anyone in its path. Surges can be expected at any time but they tend to grow in frequency towards the end of an eruption as the energy and pressure being expelled by the volcano begins to fall. The pyroclastic surge makes a show-stopping appearance towards the end of film for the explosive finale.
As the bridge leading out of town has been destroyed by a lahar and subsequent wave, Harry takes Rachel and her kids back to the USGS HQ to pick up E.L.F. which is a transmitter designed by NASA which would send out a signal and inform the authorities of the team’s whereabouts were they to get trapped. As they leave, the volcano explodes and a pyroclastic surge speeds towards them, destroying the town as it goes. Harry, Rachel and the kids manage to crash into the mines just before the surge reaches them. With the surviving members of the team watching from afar, they assume that Harry is dead.
However, Harry and the rest are alive and plan to stay in Graham’s hideout until help comes. Harry realises that he’s forgotten E.L.F. and goes back to retrieve it which is ludicrous to start with. One might think that one piece of equipment that is critical to your survival might be the first thing on your mind but nope, they need an excuse for Harry to get separated from Rachel and the kids and for their survival to be called into question.
When Harry gets back to the truck, the mine starts to collapse and Harry’s arm is broken. With the bone sticking out and everything. Ouch. Anyway, Harry manages to climb back into the truck and even though the roof of the truck has started to cave in, squishing him far enough into the seats to set off my claustrophobia, he still manages to kick E.L.F. into submitting the signal. This action is no doubt a reference to his colleague, Terry who kicks something when it doesn’t work.
After a day or two, the crew notice a light flashing and realise that Harry is still alive and so send out about 100 rescue workers to the location. Harry is found alive and pulled out of the truck. The truck is then pulled out of the mine’s entrance and Rachel walks out with the kids and their dog, Roughy. Harry and Rachel reunite and have a big snog to the delight of the rescue workers.
Here’s my first problem with this ending. It’s clear that the volcano has stopped erupting by this point and it’s also clear that there are no rescue teams in the immediate area. Wouldn’t there already be teams there who are searching for survivors. It looks like they’ve called a huge amount of people just to search for Harry.
Another problem I have is that Harry has been squished in that truck for at least two days with an open, compound fracture which left untreated in a dusty mine filled with all kinds of crap will have gotten infected by now. Not to mention the pain and indefinite shock.
All this didn’t ruin the film for me. The few inaccuracies are subtle, and I seriously doubt that it will spoil the experience.
The one thing I do like about the ending is when Harry, Rachel and the kids are airlifted away and the credits start to roll, the camera pans around the destroyed town and stops at what’s left of the volcano which has been reduced to nothing more than a crater. It’s chilling and very cool.
I’m thinking to myself about where the majority of the $116 Million of the budget had gone to. My thinking is a lot went to the special effects department. They did a lot of work, especially in the final act. To my surprise, quite a lot of the effects in the destruction of the town in the early stages of the eruption were practical effects. Miniatures were also used for things like huge bridges collapsing and the bridge that was destroyed by a lahar was done by using miniatures along with the dam that was destroyed by the flood. Miniatures made a return for the ultimate destruction via pyroclastic surge. Since miniatures and practical effects made up a huge part of the sequences, digital effects were used to for scenes such as super-imposing the volcano into the background and the actual eruption itself, the ash cloud and the pyroclastic cloud, etc.
‘Dante’s Peak’ came out the same year as another volcano movie, aptly called ‘Volcano’ and starred Tommy Lee Jones. The plot involves a volcano forming in the middle of LA. It’s seriously cheesy and feels like something ‘The Asylum’ would cook up.
So how did ‘Dante’s Peak’ do at the box office? Well, ‘Dante’s Peak’ opened at #2 on February 7th, 1997 and was released in 2,657 theatres, raking in $18 Million on its opening weekend. 8 weeks in theatres led to $67.1 Million in the US and another $111 Million internationally making a total of $178.1 Million. To be honest, with that budget and the leading cast, I expected more.
I also didn’t expect the reviews to be as bad as they were. People really didn’t like this film. It’s scored lower than ‘Volcano’. That’s how bad.
I prefer ‘Dante’s Peak’. The characters are richer and the special effects are better and it feels a lot more realistic. So now we know, when Pierce Brosnan isn’t checking inside volcanoes for super-villains, he’s studying them. That’s a timely ‘James Bond’ reference.