The small Washington town of Dante’s Peak has just won the honor of being one of the best places to live. It has a quaint main street, friendly people, clean air and beautiful mountainous scenery. It also has a dormant volcano that looks like is beginning to wake up.
Volcanologist Pierce Brosnan believes the town is in danger as this volcano is showing signs it will blow. The town mayor Linda Hamilton is willing to listen to his warnings and take precautions, but the town counsel and Brosnan’s superior aren’t convinced there’s any danger and believes he’s stirring up unnecessary fear.
Of course, Brosnan was right all along and this volcano does erupt. The residents of Dante’s Peak have to run for their lives as their beautiful town becomes engulfed by the destructive forces from the volcano. Brosnan and Hamilton are frantically race to rescue her children and try to survive hot flowing lava, acid filled lakes and pyroclastic clouds.
In the 1990s, there was something of a renaissance of the disaster film. The 1970s was a decade that saw the genre peak with high profile blockbuster films that became extremely successful (Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake). Audiences ran to theaters to watch movie stars survive airplane disasters and flaming falling debris. Then, like the volcano in Dante’s Peak, the genre went dormant for awhile.
When computer effects were able to breathe new life into how disaster effects were done, there was suddenly a whole lot new batch of disaster based movies.
Oddly enough, there became a logjam of films with similar disaster inspired premises being released near the same time. There was Armageddon and Deep Impact, two films about cataclysmic meteors hitting the Earth. The films were released only a month apart from each other. A second lava-filled disaster tale Volcano starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche, would follow Dante’s Peak only a few months later.
To this day, Dante’s Peak and Volcano have been intrinsically linked and continually compared with one another. Fans continue to debate which is the better ’90s volcano disaster movie to this day.
Directed by Roger Donaldson, (who would direct Bronson again seventeen years later in November Man) Dante’s Peak plays by the tried and true playbook of the disaster movie formula. It’s a standard connect-the-dots type of story leading up to the volcano erupting and the main characters spend the rest of the movie trying to survive, while unlucky supporting characters meet their demise.
Let’s be honest, it’s the action-packed running from disaster scenes that is the main draw when you watch a disaster film. And to its credit, Dante’s Peak delivers on some very well done volcanic special effects and scenarios. Even all these years later, a lot of the effects continue to hold up remarkably well.
Before we get to the fun part, we have to get led through a very routine story with rather humdrum characters. Brosnan is a haunted volcanologist after his fiancé has died from a volcano eruption. He’s sent to Dante’s Peak by his boss Charles Hallahan to investigate some unusual activity that’s occurring with their mountaintop.
Arriving in town, Brosnan meets Mayor Hamilton and her two kids. They quickly become close and flirty with each other. Evidence starts to grow that this volcano is starting to awaken. Brosnan and Hamilton want to take precautions and warn the town. However, Hallahan is one of those stubborn bosses in movies and says Brosnan is overreacting and discounts all the mounting evidence and decides there is nothing to worry about from this stirring volcano.
There’s back and forth arguing, the geologist team takes measurements, real danger signs spring up until everyone realizes Brosnan was right all along. When finally the geologists and the town council are ready to warn residents to evacuate, it’s too late and the volcano blows. Volcanic mayhem commences!
It’s a slow build and there are some decent scenes involving Brosnan and Hamilton as sparks of romance build, but it’s only due from the charisma between of the two. The script and dialogue they’re given is uninspired and there’s not much they can do to enliven it. It’s only from the pair’s natural charms that makes any of it semi-enjoyable to watch. Thinking back on their scenes together – I can’t remember one memorable exchange they have between one another.
When the volcano erupts that’s where the fun is. The latest 1990s new special effects, combined with reliable practical effects rain down on the screen and keep the movie kicking. Bronson and Hamilton find themselves trapped in one hair-raising volcanic scenario after another.
Hamilton’s kids of course get themselves in danger by driving to grandmas during the eruption and now the kids need saving. Then, Grammy and the kids both need saving by Brosnan and Hamilton. Then, the whole group of them find themselves trapped in a boat floating in an acid lake. I believe the climax to that sequence has given the kids who watched Dante’s Peak back when they were little nightmares ever since.
Racing around the collapsing town, driving through rivers of lava, helicopters trying to navigate the could of ash. This is where the money all went onscreen. Unfortunately, other than Brosnan and Hamilton we haven’t really gotten to know any other characters in Dante’s Peak, other than the geologists slightly. So, we bounce back and forth between the two groups as they try to escape this collapsing town. All the other townsfolk are just background extras who are collateral damage.
By the time Brosnan, Hamilton and the kids get trapped in a mine, it’s all over and the expansive volcanic blowout turns into a claustrophobic struggle of them trying to get back to the surface and end the film. The whole mineshaft sequence sort of kills the momentum of all the rip-roaring driving around that came before.
Dante’s Peak tries to play things as straight and serious as possible. And some of the scenes are effectively nail biting. There’s a poorly misplaced use of the cartoonish ‘Wilhelm Scream’ sound effect for the death of one character. Casual moviegoers probably won’t notice it, but it stands out to me and really deflates what is meant to be a significant death that we’re meant to be sadden by. Hearing that clichéd scream, I can’t help but chuckle at it.
For me, Dante’s Peak falls into an ‘average disaster movie’. It checks all the boxes you expect from a disaster movie and doesn’t go anywhere surprising. The story is as standard and predictable as the usual ‘disaster movie template’. Yes, they are sure that the dog survives.
Without the star power of Brosnan and Hamilton, the first half would be very, very tedious to get through. It actually is for me, but the two of them just barely make it manageable for me to bare through it and get to the fun-filled destruction. The volcano effects are good and that’s the main takeaway you get from Dante’s Peak. If you’re watching a disaster movie about a volcano, that might just be satisfying enough for some fans.