While I was watching it, I loved Dante’s Peak. It was a great action/disaster movie with lots of interesting sequences, riveting special effects, and likeable characters. Afterwards, the movie left my mind completely. It didn’t resonate with any interesting themes or ideas; it was just a story, and it was done. But really, what else could anyone ask from an action movie?
The effects-laden previews made this movie look like Twister, which I did not like. Many critics have called the two movies similar. Roger Ebert even outlines the “rules” for such disaster movies in his review. But I disagree that adherence to the genre necessarily makes a sub-par movie. Some formula movies work and others don’t. Dante’s Peak works.
Pierce Brosnan plays Harry Dalton, a volcanologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, who is sent to the perky little town of Dante’s Peak. Strange things are happening in Dante’s Peak; or maybe they aren’t. That’s what Harry has to find out. He arrives and hooks up with mayor Rachel Wando (played by Linda Hamilton) who shows him around. The movie spends some time getting to know Rachel, Harry, his colleagues, and the town. The characters are likeable, largely because Brosnan and Hamilton are so charismatic. And thankfully, as Andrea says, Rachel’s kids aren’t too annoying, (as many movie kids are these days).
The movie really takes off, though, when the mountain blows. At first there is panic among the townspeople and the panic is well-staged. Quite often action sequences comprise a bunch of close-ups, cut together. (That’s cheaper, easier, and less interesting than actually spending time to choreograph the sequence.) The confusion in Dante’s Peak is not entirely created through editing. There are actually carefully staged wide shots of townspeople running and driving amok. The freeway at the edge of town collapses and it looks like footage from the San Francisco earthquake. A flood of water, ash, and logs sweeps down the mountain and it looks like footage from Mt. St. Helens. Harry Dalton (the character) is trapped in a cave-in and I fear for Pierce Brosnan’s (the actor’s) safety.
After the preliminary eruption, the main characters rush from one dangerous situation to the next, and each of these sequences is riveting and frightening. The characters never do anything inhumanly stupid to bring the danger on themselves (as characters often do in horror movies), but there’s always one more dangerous situation for the characters to face. Having survived several close geologic encounters, Harry and Rachel try to drive down off the mountain, only to discover that the road is blocked by a lava flow. Driving on might get them stuck in lava, but turning around might trap them on a doomed mountain. Credit the writing of Leslie Bohem for keeping these situations tense without feeling contrived, and for including enough of these vignettes to keep the pace moving.
I assume that most of these situations were computer generated (like the flood and the freeway collapse), and if it’s true, these are the best computer-generated graphics I have seen. They were crude at the beginning of Dante’s Peak (the peak is clearly inserted into the backgrounds), interesting in Terminator 2 and passably believable in Jurassic Park, but the flood scene in Dante’s Peak looked frighteningly real and the freeway collapse had me riveted. They didn’t work everywhere, like when the lava burst though the back wall of the cabin, but perhaps for the first time, some of the computer graphics are seamless.
This movie was crafted and not slapped together. There is some interesting camera work during the setup of the movie. The camera, in two parallel shots started on the face of a character, then pulled back and swung around to reveal the whole scene. It’s not much, but it showed me that some care and thought were put into the movie. There was no superheroism, no dumb luck, no coincidences, no token sex scenes, and no irrelevant pop music sprinkled in as an excuse for a soundtrack. Also, three PhDs were credited as advisors. I am not qualified to say if the science was true to life, but it felt about right and it wasn’t condescending.
Although this movie may be totally forgotten in five years, it is great entertainment.