One of the landmark events of my youth happened in the early morning of May 18th, 1980, during my senior year of high school. On that day, Mount Saint Helens suffered one of the largest recorded landslides in modern history – resulting in a cataclysmic volcanic blast which unleashed a pyroclastic cloud in a lateral detonation that scoured the landscape for up to twenty kilometers from the mountain. It was the first volcanic eruption on the U.S. mainland in two generations (the last being Mount Lassen in 1912) and one recorded in spectacular images that were transmitted around the world.
I had long entertained the idea of being a volcanologist, and had only recently reluctantly given up that dream (my counselors having convinced me that an effort-induced asthmatic sensitive to irritating vapors was not someone who should be making a career of visiting steep mountains leaking toxic and corrosive gas). That event nearly convinced me to go for that career anyway.
However, my fascination with volcanoes never wavered, and so when, in 1997, two separate movies featuring volcanoes appeared, I was pretty excited.
One of them, Volcano, was… a disappointment, to put it mildly. There wasn't a shred of scientific accuracy in the presentation, and the plot and characters were ludicrous.
Not so for Dante's Peak.
Dante's Peak opens with the main character Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) and his wife Marianne (Walker Brandt), both volcanologists, driving desperately away from a volcano undergoing a major eruption (while I believe the eruption is stated to be in Columbia, the imagery and type of eruption echoes that of Mount Pinatubo). As they are nearing the safe zone, a volcanic "bomb" (a chunk of solidifying lava thrown into the air) tears through the car roof and kills Marianne (in a very grim scene).
Some years later, Dalton is asked to go to the town of Dante's Peak, on the slopes of a volcanic mountain of the same name, to examine some signs of volcanic activity there. Harry's been burying himself in work, and his boss Paul Dreyfus(Charles Hallahan) would rather he took a break, but Dalton refuses – though it's implied that perhaps he could take a sort of vacation in the nice, peaceful town he's going to visit. (We can see where this is going already…)
In some ways, the subsequent events echo Jaws – the looming threat that imperils the town, a celebration in the town which points up the success that it is now enjoying, and people trying to avoid assuming the worst which – in retrospect – they should have.
However, in this case it isn't the mayor who's the impediment, but Paul, who remembers false alarms called by Harry Dalton previously; it's implied that they're concerned that he's overly paranoid about these things because of what happened in Columbia. Naturally, it turns out that this time Harry Dalton is 100% correct – and things are even worse than he thought.
Visually, Dante's Peak is a marvelous bit of work, re-creating the visual effect of a Cascade Range eruption similar to Mt. Saint Helens almost perfectly, and previously showing us the beauty of the mountain and surrounding town to great advantage so that we can be all the more shocked when the destruction comes raining down. I've heard some criticize the film as being slow in the beginning (minus the opening), taking a long time to get to the action, but I think this was a vitally important choice – to take the time to establish the setting, the people, the mountain, and let the menace slowly but inexorably build. After all, it's hardly as slow as Titanic!
However, what makes the film really work is the simple but well-told character stories – Harry's final recovery from his loss by having an opportunity to actually save people and open up after his loss, Mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) coming to see this visiting scientist as someone she can rely on, Paul recognizing his mistakes and doing his best to make up for them, and so on.
The romance between Harry and Rachel is especially well done because it builds as slowly as the action, and is directly connected to his interaction with her family; unlike some movies, the children are integral parts of the movie's action and when they make stupid decisions, they make them for appropriately child-like reasons and recognize their mistakes often without being told. The family clearly takes to Harry as a group, and the events of the movie help throw all of their personalities into sharp relief.
Once the action really starts, it never slows down. Dante's Peak (the mountain) unleashes every weapon in a volcano's arsenal against the defenseless town in a steadily escalating litany of disaster – toxic gases, earthquakes, acidic water, and – of course – culminating in a gargantuan pyroclastic eruption.
In addition, when compared to Volcano, Dante's Peak is a doctoral dissertation of scientific accuracy. Much of the work depicted is very accurate, close to real life, and all of the phenomena shown – up to and including the highly acidic lake – are known volcanic phenomena. There is, of course, a lot of artistic license – I don't think the acidification of a lake could be that swift, for instance, and the sequence with the lava flows is clearly drawing on lava flows of the Hawaiian model, not the dacitic, tremendously thick lava of the West Coast, and of course the whole survival of the car is… questionable, at best, ludicrous at worst. Still, these are – by Hollywood standards – almost trivial issues. At least we don't have literal exploding "volcanic bombs" as they did in Volcano!
Overall, I give Dante's Peak a nine out of ten, or four and a half stars. This was just a plain FUN movie, and even the ending of it combined character with technological innovation in a way that made for real heartwarming. I strongly recommend this film!