a critiQal film review Dante’s Peak (1997)

Plot: Years after a horrific accident, a vulcanist (Brosnan) is sent to the quiet town of Dante's Peak after reports of slight geological happenings with the local mountain. After arriving, he befriends the town's mayor (Hamilton), and starts to worry the local mountain may be less dormant than people think. When he goes to warn the town, however, his boss shuts him down, saying there isn't any need. Little does anyone know how wrong he is...

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  • ...a fun disaster film - partly because viewers get to see Brosnan pre-Bond and Hamilton post-Terminator.

Back before he battled evil foes the world over as the coolest James Bond since Connery, Mr. Brosnan was involved (thanks to Dante’s Peak) in a film feud against one Tommy Lee Jones.

If you recall, Hollywood started it’s kick of disaster movies with two competing films about a natural disaster – namely, volcanic eruption. Volcano (1997) hit the screens in ’97, and stunned moviegoers with it’s incredibly unrealistic, yet amazingly well-done, volcano in Los Angeles. Thanks to it’s great cast of actors (the aforementioned Tommy Lee Jones and a surprisingly decent Anne Heche among them) the film was a big hit…and a great movie as well.

Then, about the same time, another film popped up to compete in the volcanic fury – this one, Dante’s Peak. Teaming pre-Bond Brosnan up with Linda Hamilton, this film threw whatever it had against the competition. But would the Brosnan/Hamilton duo be enough to combat Mr. Jones and Ms. Heche, or would Dante’s Peak lose out to Volcano (1997) for best volcano movie?

Pierce Brosnan, long used to action roles, thanks to “Remington Steele” (TV) probably could have done his role in this film in his sleep – and unfortunately, occasionally might have. His cool exterior (later showcased perfectly as James Bond) seems a bit out of place in this film, and throws off the viewer’s expectations of his character. When he gets in a tight spot and panics like the rest of us, it’s a bit of a shock, and seems almost out of character.

Linda Hamilton, best known for being stalked by a cyborg in The Terminator (1984) and it’s first sequel (and marrying James “king of the world” Cameron), seems also to be a bit of an ill-fit in her role as small-town mayor. One keeps expecting her to whip out a shotgun and start blasting away, almost – but it never happens. Instead, she cowers helplessly most of the time, waiting for big ol’ Pierce to come save her.

The two really shine when they interact, however – you can almost see the sparks flying between them. This distracts the viewer almost enough, since even though they don’t quite fit in their roles, they do fit together, so the viewer tends to overlook the bumps in the road.

The plot is a bit thin, and somewhat thrown together. A town right next to a mountain is suddenly in trouble in Dante’s Peak. Yeah, duh. The townspeople are freaked – well, what did you expect? You did decide to live there, didn’t you? Sheesh. A vulcanist is sent because of some strange readings – then his boss totally denies something is going on when he arrives. Umm, does this not make sense to anyone else out there? So, this guy shows up, falls for the town mayor, and spends half the movie trying to get out of the town alive. Okay, so no big shakes plot wise.

The special effects border between cheesy and spectacular, mostly due to the camera angles. The director seems to have a huge thing of showing people’s reflections (mostly Linda Hamilton’s) off a window while something huge and magnificent is happening in the background. It’s an interesting effect the first time, but after that…well, then you start thinking.

Why do they keep showing that? Is it because they found out they could superimpose her onto the big special effects happening, and just got entranced by it? Or, is it because the special effects are all just green screen effects and they needed some way to involve the actors without the scene looking fake? See? After the first time, you begin to wonder if it’s such a cool effect…or the only thing they could do and still keep the scene realistic.

When the volcanic ash and wind hits, the special effects do crank up a notch and begin showing off a few impressive scenes. But all in all, most of the scenes (especially with the characters driving by themselves in the truck) seem to be mostly real footage of a volcano erupting. This is cool, but it’s also quite obvious that it’s playing on the green screen behind the actors while they react. Volcano (1997) had much more involvement between the volcano and it’s characters, and helped bring viewers even more into the storyline that way. In Dante’s Peak, the volcano is always mostly just right behind them, and they are fleeing, not interacting. Probably easier to make, but not as much fun to watch.

Having said all that, the average person is probably thinking I didn’t like Dante’s Peak. But, to our mutual confusion, that isn’t true at all. Maybe it’s a case of the sum being better than the parts, I don’t know. I do think that Volcano (1997) won the battle of volcanic fury hands down, but this is quite an entertaining movie even so.

Maybe I enjoyed it partly because I know something about the past (and future) characters for these people. After all, it was nice to see Ms. Hamilton with a volcano instead of a cyborg chasing after her for a change. It’s also kind of neat to witness how much Brosnan was already becoming James Bond: his cool exterior, willingness to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of others, a dry humor…and even the whole charming-the-ladies thing.

Dante’s Peak does back up one thing I’ve always said – Brosnan was always destined to be Bond. After seeing this, you’ll agree, I’m sure. But don’t just go for that. The special effects are fun, and the storyline is involving despite it’s simplicity.

One word of advice though. If you’re going to make it a Friday night at the volcano (so to speak), watch Dante’s Peak first and Volcano (1997) second. It’ll make this film much more enjoyable – and won’t hurt the other one either.

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