Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Dante's Peak (1997)

Another reason, perhaps, the nineties birthed a new wave of disaster movies is due to the public's growing awareness of natural catastrophes. News stories about “storm chasers” led to “Twister.” And the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the deadliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history, certainly pushed volcanoes into the public imagination more than ever. Even though the event was over a decade old by that point, I recall hearing a lot about Mount St. Helens as a kid. And it's obvious that this is where “Dante's Peak” drew its inspiration. The film mentions the Washington mountain by name and filmed inside its crater. The public showed that they were willing to watch real life tragedy transformed into cinematic entertainment. “Dante's Peak” would be a decent money-maker in 1997.

Volcanologist Harry Dalton is still reeling from a personal tragedy. While escaping a volcanic eruption in Columbia, his wife was killed. Years later, he obsesses over his work. When he gets news that Dante's Peak, a scenic town in Washington state, has reported some seismic activity, he's not impressed. The longer he stays in the town, the more concerned he becomes. The local hot springs are boiling people alive. Poison gas is seeping out of the ground. The local drinking water is overtaken by sulfur. As Dalton grows closer to mayor Rachel Waldo, and her two kids, Dante's Peak explodes. Lava, ash, and toxic smoke rains down on the small town.

It's normal for disaster movies to wait a while before the shit hits the fan. You've got to set up the characters before putting them through hell. “Dante's Peak” follows this formula. Upon arriving in the town, Pierce Brosnan's Dr. Dalton immediately has sparks with Linda Hamilton's Mayor Waldo. The busybodies in town quickly decide the two are a couple. They go hiking, despite only knowing each other for a few hours. The couple is ready to leap into bed when the volcano erupts. He even gets along with her kids, most notably in an adorable scene where he performs magic tricks for them. And, honest to God, it actually sort of works. As a hacky romance about a grieving man finding new love with a busy single mom, “Dante's Peak” is mildly charming. This is mostly thanks to Brosnan and Hamilton, who play off each other nicely.

Unfortunately, “Dante's Peak” does not maintain a consistent tone. The film's opening sequence, inspired by the 1993 Galeras tragedy in Columbia, is harrowing. We then leap to the sweet scenes of Brosnan and Hamilton flirting or cutesy banter among the volcanic research team. This is intercut with intense moments, like a skinny-dipping couple getting boiled to death. That all-over-the-place approach continues even after the volcano bursts. Hyper-violent scenes of landslides wiping out traffic co-exist with ridiculous scenes of the family dog being rescued. Or goofy scenes of Brosnan's indestructible Chevrolet Silverado surviving all sorts of stuff.

Unlike previous volcano movies, which usually focus on rivers of lava, “Dante's Peak” utilizes every volcanic reaction you can think of. The town is blanketed gray with ash. Landslides wash away vehicles, including the expected skeptical expert. Poison gas kills people and animals. Lava incinerates everything around it. In one of the film's most infamous sequences, a lake is transformed into sulfuric acid. If destruction is all you're after, “Dante's Peak” delivers. The disaster sequences are intensely executed, more often than not, and the special effects are realistic and convincing. (Though the science is, of course, utterly dubious.)

A big element undermining “Dante's Peak” is its atrocious direction. Okay, yes, you can always understand what's going on. Director Roger Donaldson, previously of “Cadillac Man” and “Species,” never veers into the incoherent. However, many of his choices are baffling. A number of early scenes are shot at Dutch angles for no particular reason. These moments sometimes also feature some distracting handheld camera-work. Once the disaster begins, Donaldson also throws in some tacky slow-motion. A car crash at the end throws in several super perturbing crash-zooms. One of the most embarrassing moments features a poorly deployed Wilhem Scream too.

“Dante's Peak” was a widely discussed film among my elementary school playground. The scene where the grandma gets melted in the acidic lake was deemed especially 'dope.' The film spurned on a briefly burning interest in volcanoes among kids my age. Despite this, I never got around to watching the movie when it was new. Turns out I wasn't missing too much. The film has two likable leads and some decent special effects sequences. All together, I don't think “Dante's Peak” totally works. [6/10]

[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[] Star-Studded Cast

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