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Dante's Peak Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007

Image Before global warming and forces of nature like hurricane Katrina claimed the attention of the American public as the most threatening possibilites for danger in the environment, volcanoes held that dubious honor. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 and Mount Pinatubo the following year caused mass hysteria in several sectors. For a time, even earthquakes took a backseat to volcanoes.

Thankfully, Hollywood waited until 1997 to unleash a big budget volcano disaster movie that would have met Irwin Allen’s yardstick for success. Of course, that yardstick measures fear and paranoia induced in audiences around the globe. Unfortunately, Hollywood chose that year to unleash two movies, not just one. The second movie, simply titled “Volcano” starred Tommy Lee Jones and came out after “Dante’s Peak,” a self-determined disaster regarding the box office. America had decided it had had enough of exploding volcanoes by that time.

“Dante’s Peak” is a decent film. It meets all the requirements of a disaster epic. It has a suffering hero harmed by the very thing he’s about to be called on to face again, a strong single mom in a position of power and responsibility, two plucky and charismatic kids – one of whom is an organized genius and the other whom is a daredevil willing to risk anything and only thinking after the fact, and a grandmother willing to sacrifice her all.

There’s also a ton of special effects as the disaster changes the entire landscape of a small town within hours. (The effect actually took the special effects crew weeks to manage.) Although it takes nearly an hour of screen time before the volcano blows, once the event occurs, nothing is left to the imagination. There’s a pyroclastic flow (rather than lava), smoke fills the air, cars and buildings are burned and smashed as the destruction runs wild. Pierce Brosnan plays Harry Dalton, a vulcanologist with a tragic past. Four years before the movie opens, he was in Colombia, South America when a volcano erupted. His fiancée was killed by falling rocks that looked like meteorites as they screamed out of the sky. The opening sequence is very attention-getting and works well. It also shows off the brilliant presentation of the high-definition format because the scenes are clear and vibrant.

I didn’t know how well the movie would turn out because I wasn’t sure if the movie had been shot in high-def back in 1996 for release in 1997. High-def was still emerging technology at that point, and only George Lucas seemed wedded to it. However, the transfer from whatever the masters were is impeccable.

Brosnan delivers a good performance. Dalton is one of those banged-up heroes these types of films always call for. He steps out of tragedy and somehow stays drawn to the work that’s delivered the greatest heartache to him. But the opening scenes after his fiancée’s death show that he’s coasting in a way, too.

Of course, once he becomes convinced that a volcano is about to erupt above the town of Dante’s Peak, “the second-most favorite city to move to with a population of under 20,000 in the United States,” he becomes a born-again crusader. He plays well with the child actors in the film, and those sequences come across as natural and moving. Brosnan can be the perfect father on film.

Charles Hallahan plays Paul Dreyfus, Dalton’s boss at the United States Geological Survey Office. He’s hard-nosed and cautious, just the type of guy to bring a bad situation to the absolute edge before events push it over. He also pays the ultimate price for not listening to Dalton and to Mother Nature, but that was so predictable that revealing it here isn’t a problem.

Linda Hamilton plays Rachel Wando, the mayor of Dante’s Peak. In this role she’s a great mom, and someone with vision. But she doesn’t exhibit that much strength and tends to get lost in scenes, simply delivering the lines she’s supposed to deliver. However, the chemistry between her and Brosnan is obvious. They look like a good couple, and they act like a good couple.

Elizabeth Hoffman plays Ruth Wando, Rachel’s mother-in-law. The feistiness between the two characters is a given in a movie like this, as is her cantankerousness and refusal to leave the mountain and place the family in even more jeopardy. Even her brave sacrifice at the right moment is paint-by-numbers.

The real gems are the kids. Jamie Renee Smith and Jeremy Foley are wonderful to watch onscreen even though the roles they play are pretty much cookie-cutter roles of kids in any Stephen Spielberg movie. (You’ll find these same time fictional siblings – not by name, of course – in “Jurassic Park”, with almost the same foibles and bickering.) They make Brosnan and Hamilton appear even more like parents because they interact with them so well.

The resolution of the movie is outstanding. The establishing shots of the mountains are breath-taking. Every scene looks like a picture postcard. The colors are vibrant and every image has sharp-edges. This movie, despite its age and predictability, is one of those you bought HD DVD players for, people.

The sound quality will blow your surround sound system to pieces and shake the walls. The opening volcanic explosion proved to be door rattlers, and I’d forgotten (or never really had the privilege of hearing how raucous the thunder of the volcanoes were in my previous viewings of the movie) how loud they were. The bass rumble through the subwoofer was incredible. Really good stuff.

The special features basically have a great commentary by Director Roger Donaldson (who also studied to be a geologist) and Production Designer Dennis Washington, and an hour-long presentation of different mini-episodes about the movie. There are snippets of interviews seeded throughout, and the parts about the special effects CG area and the nature of volcanoes themselves were fantastic. The only thing I would have liked to see added was maybe a factual documentary on volcanoes to round out the more-bang-for-your-buck special features.

Granted, “Dante’s Peak” isn’t going to surprise many viewers with its plot or its characters, but it is worth watching on family night with the kids because it’s not too horrendous with death and violence (to people, at least). And if you liked the movie or the actors, this one is worth picking up to add to the HD DVD collection because it is such a good representation of what’s coming out in that field.

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