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With a plot similar to Jaws, in that a terrible threat leaves one man facing an unbelieving city council until the beast starts taking lives, Dante’s Peak is a fanciful thriller that doesn’t try to be anything but a family action film and therefore suffers a bit for it as it tend to plays to a younger audience. Directed by Roger Donaldson, the film has a mix of good special effects but is so by the numbers it offers nearly nothing in terms of suspense other than how far physics and logic are going to be bent.
Before we deconstruct the run from the volcano, let’s set up the scene. This moment is about the inevitable eruption, which begins with the warnings from volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) when he discovers a number of dead wildlife around the town’s outskirts while with the mayor, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton). It escalates when two dead bodies are found boiled alive in a hot springs but, naturally, Dalton’s boss arrives and claims he doesn’t have enough evidence to evacuate. When weeks pass with no activity (other than a budding magma-hot romance between the Dalton and Wando), things suddenly turn for the worst when the town’s water supply becomes contaminated. Finally the order is given, causing hysteria as the first blanket of ash begins to fall. Time to run.
In a panic, Rachel packs her two young children in the truck as Harry collects some equipment (that will prove helpful later). All inside the vehicle, with ash falling and blanketing like a blinding blizzard, they speed away as the mountain explodes, the enormous pyroclastic cloud darkening the sky as it plumes out at super speed. It’s a race to get to cover as the town becomes obliterated from the heat, wind and ash, with trees leveled and buildings demolished. The truck slips and twists its ways as fast it can go, heading for an abandoned mine shaft just outside the city limits, and as the monstrous cloud of heat and fire rushes closer, they burst through the sealed entrance and into the cave system, their truck eventually stopped by heavy support beams.
The moment is a classic example of the disaster escape trope, and most assuredly director Donaldson knows so, committing to it with almost gleeful abandon. From the children in danger to the fast-approaching threat, to the logic-defying physics, this is like an homage/nod/outright theft of what came before, following the formula as if regulated by law.
While we never have an ounce of worry for the characters, we’re not really meant to. This is about the mechanics of the sequence, the careful assembly and execution of all the right parts in order to entertain. It is to give the mostly impressive special effects of the titular volcano a greater sense of scale and menace, like the exploding White House in Independence Day or the attacking T-Rex in the Jeep’s mirror in Jurassic Park. Only not quite as good. Let walk through it.
It starts with the eruption. Dalton correctly calls it the pyroclastic cloud (after Wando literally looks at the massive plume of fire and smoke erupting from the volcano and asks him what it is, apparently having never in her life seen such a thing). This is also called the pyroclastic flow and travels at speeds up to 200 km/h (124 mph). Fast is a good word to describe it. Raging, hellfire fast, pushing toxic air in front of at equal the speed. It consumes everything.
Next we get a nice shot of Dante’s Peak from the town. We’re seeing what Dalton is seeing. Concern for safety to be sure.
It’s followed by a few quick montage shots of the awesome power of that speed mentioned above. Trees are thoroughly pummeled by a blanket of superheated air, created with practical effects and miniatures.
After that, within the span of 11 seconds, as chaotic images are flashed across the screen, we are shown the same cloud twice, billowing fast from left to right as it races from the mountain. It’s literally the same shot but no one is meant to notice. Whoops.
While this is happening, Wando’s son says worriedly, “Mom, it’s coming.” That’s helpful. Dalton however gets the best line though. Looking at his driver’s side mirror, he sees this:
“Don’t look back,” he says, literally turning around and looking back as he says it. See.
Let’s pause here and consider that mirror shot though. How is that possible? The very next thing we see is a wide angle image of the escaping truck and the approaching cloud hovering over the town. There’s no way he saw what was showing in his mirror, even if objects appear closer than they are.
In 1993’s Jurassic Park, the originator of this ‘objects appear closer than they are’ gag, it served two purposes: one, to give some frightening detail to the steadily gaining monster and provide the audience with a well-timed moment of humor in a stressful scene. Its simplicity was brilliant. Here however, the filmmakers forgot the second part, but worse, break the continuity, which negates the effect anyway.
What follows is a series of shots showing the epic destructive capabilities of the cloud as it pushes over the town, again with a number of mostly-convincing miniatures.
For the time, these were some pretty descent shots and did a great job of demonstrating the raw fury behind the volcano’s immense power.
Then this happens:
While the cataclysmic force of the volcano literally shreds trees and explodes buildings like they were paper models it has no effect on the car. Yes, said car is moving, but not at 200 km/h.
In this sequence the cloud just about overtakes the fleeing car. Compare the above screenshot with this one taken a moment before:
That’s a fully loaded tractor trailer getting obliterated before the cloud actually overcomes it. There’s also this scene:
Here we see a car already being lifted off the ground before the cloud even reaches it. And it has . . . hey . . . that’s the same explosion as the one from twenty seconds later but at a different angle. They reused that shot, too.
We’ve haven’t even mentioned heat. A pyroclastic flow is capable of 1,000 °C (1,830 °F). To put that into perspective, water boils at 100°C (212° F). Image being inside an envelope of super-heated air that is pushing over you at 200 km/h. Of course, all the oxygen has been replaced by poisonous gases anyway and you’ve already died of suffocation as your first breath instantly vaporized your internal organs, so no worries!
Okay, so that’s the science, but movies are rarely about science. Movies are about emotions. They want to make you feel. This would be a boring story if Dalton arrived, told the town to evacuate three weeks before the blast and everyone did. We want to see our heroes narrowly escape death, to cleverly outwit the beast pursuing them. That’s the conceit of many action movies. Dante’s Peak is a standard action thriller that only wants to make you feel. It’s well-cast and competently accomplishes what it sets out to do. A B-Grade disaster movie, it’s a fun, unchallenging experience that makes for a good double feature with the similarly themed Volcano, which came out the same year to about the same acclaim.
Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton