Dante's Peak (1997)

D: Roger Donaldson
S: Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton

Yet another of the 1990s disaster flicks, this one boasting the unusual gimmick of a volcano as the source of the challenge to humanity to be overcome by the proper balance of characters. In this case those characters are the haunted geologist Pierce Brosnan whose delays facing a volcano in South America have cost him personal grief and strong, independent minded mayor Linda Hamilton, whose quiet little town in picture postcard America is about to become the site of all manner of impressive disaster movie moments.

Though credibility is often stretched in this genre, this particular film is careful to provide a whole team of varying experts to explain and foreshadow each of the big action highlights. It actually manages to be quite engrossing on an expository level, more detailed by far than the later Volcano and less taxing on the contrivance level than either Twister or Daylight). As Brosnan's team begin to investigate a series of strange incidents near a supposedly dormant volcano, the earth prepares to spew forth its wrath upon a seemingly undeserving populace. In contrast to Volcano's troubled Angelusians (complete with class and racial tensions), Dante's Peak is a charming little town which embodies a bourgeois utopia (which even manages to include some Jaws type local council conspiracies to keep it all quiet) one either longs to see destroyed by ash and lava or one fears for with the required vehemence. Either way, it works, because after a long set up, when this film begins to deliver the goods, it does so with style.

Inventive in its exploitation of the various stages of the volcanic eruption, and never focused solely upon the creeping lava which often dogs films on this phenomenon (few enough as they have been in recent years), it keeps coming up with challenges to the physical order which the characters meet with as much panic and decisiveness as befits their well established make up. Damaged bridges and falling ash are as much of a threat as melting or exploding scenery, and with crashing helicopters, blinded cars and collapsing buildings, there's far more to worry about here than simply getting out of the way before you burn. This kind of innovation keeps the film moving along (assisted by capable performances from the leads), and though the ending is a bit too happy for its own good, the carnage has been convincing enough to hold onto its audience from start to finish.

As with any disaster film, the name of the game is big budget special effects, and these are impressive in Dante's Peak. But Donaldson is also able to deliver some quieter moments focusing on the eerie, ash-laden landscape which add a frisson or two to the rush of adrenaline. Of course, this is a film which simply but be seen on the largest screen available or there is almost no point in watching it, but in widescreen on a large enough TV it might play at home. All-in-all the better of the two volcano films of the day (the 1996 TV movie Volcano: Fire on the Mountain does not qualify for competition), but as with Volcano, you should know what to expect before you pay to see it and not come home crying when you get it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.