Things are looking pretty good in the little town of Dante’s Peak. Nestled at the foot of a volcano of the same name, the charming town boasts a colorful Pioneer Days festival, the "best espresso east of Seattle," (the secret ingredient is sulphur!) and has just been named "second most desirable place to live" in the US. And if that weren’t good fortune enough, their lovely old volcano has been dormant for thousands of years, and a business tycoon is about to invest $18 million in the town. Yep, life is good.
Then again, maybe not. Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), maverick volcanologist, thinks the town’s hot springs are a little *too* hot after a couple of skinny dippers get boiled. He’s not happy about the acidity of the water, or those hundreds of tiny earthquakes, either. Harry thinks Dante’s Peak is about to blow its top, and take the town with it. He quickly convinces mini-skirted mayor and espresso proprietess Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) that there’s trouble brewing. But wouldn’t you know it? A bunch of greedy naysayers in the town council, spurred on by Harry’s conservative boss (damn that US Geological Service and their politico-economic agenda!), decide there’s nothing to worry about except plummeting property values. Will Dante’s Peak be the next Pompeii? Did Amity have a giant shark problem?
*Dante’s Peak* follows the *Jaws* model of suspense-building to the letter, with a cozy, unwitting populace (7,400 doomed souls) happily basking in ignorance while scientists make increasingly alarming discoveries, until the big climax occurs, with a volcanic eruption pretty much devouring and/or chasing everyone in sight. Unlike *Twister*, which offered nothing but tornado after exciting tornado, *Dante’s Peak* has a much slower boil, as everyone watches and waits for the big blowout. Fortunately, the down time is filled with thrilling, mildly informative geological work! It’s not all seismometers, sulphur and gas chromatography, however. There’s also Harry’s over-caffeinated, geeky fellow geologists, the kind of scientists who don’t mind dying so much as long as they get to "see the show." Apparently, being killed by a volcano is, to the volcanologist, the equivalent of dying in battle for a Klingon or samurai. They’re a noble breed, but with computers and advanced degrees. In addition to the gang of volcano watchers, there’s a stubborn, crusty, volcano-dwelling grandmother, a budding romance between Rachel and Harry, Rachel’s cute but troublesome kids, and a few mildly interesting excursions into the crater of the awakening volcano.
Most importantly, there are ample opportunities provided for Danteans to be jerks. This volcano, you see, isn’t just some faceless geological phenomenon, but a mountain with morality, a real fire and brimstone ethicist, nature as psycho slasher killer. As in the poet’s Purgatory, you can bet that everyone in *Dante’s Peak* will get what’s coming to them when this baby blows. The lascivious, the greedy, the foolhardy, the stubborn, the ignorant and the panicky, the mountain will claim them all.
Harry’s not just playing games when he sets up a row of tumbling dominoes -- he’s being prohetic. The whole town will crumble when the volcano erupts, and erupt it will. But this isn’t your garden variety Mt. St. Helens style eruption. I was in Seattle when St. Helens went, and it was about as exciting as snow (which was actually pretty exciting to us Seattleites in those pre-caffeinated, halcyon days before Starbucks coffee was invented). But Dante’s Peak is no mere ash-hole; when this volcano erupts, it’s about as thrilling as thrilling gets, a major disaster of epic proportions, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The four disasters of the apocalypse are visited upon the hapless inhabitants of Dante’s Peak: fire, flood, earthquake and eruption, with compound fractures, fender benders, lightning, acid-filled lakes, paraclastic clouds, blinding ashfall, giant rolling boulders, cave-ins and red hot lava thrown in for good measure, along with the most fantastic truck ride in the history of horseless carriages. Harry’s amazing truck defies the laws of physics, mechanics and nature. It’s all quite exhausting, and more than occasionally, downright ridiculous.
Leslie Bohem’s screenplay serves as both a major disaster movie, and a sly parody of disaster movies. Every cliche is played to the hilt, every possible mishap occurs, every impossible feat is accomplished. *Dante’s Peak* is a snicker-fest of absurdity hiding under a thick layer of heroics and special effects. That’s a good thing, because the special effects are not really all that special. Much of the climactic destruction in *Dante’s Peak* is obviously wrought on miniature models, although the computer graphics are pretty convincing. Realism, however, is altogether not this movie’s strong suit.