The effects go boom but the human story is a bust in “Dante’s Peak.” A midlevel entry in the current retro disaster cycle, physically impressive production contains elements familiar from “Twister,” but unfortunately more closely resembles the same screenwriter’s “Daylight” in its sense of dramatic conviction. This first lava flow of 1997 gives the thrill-seeking audience enough literal bang for its buck to record some initial high-decibel grosses, but mild word of mouth and unlikely repeat viewing will keep final tally perhaps lower than hoped. International outlook is strong.
This picture at least appears to be less extravagant and, certainly, less expensive than the film it beat to market, “Volcano,” so it is undoubtedly fortunate for Universal that it was able to come out first. Aside from the special effects, which are mammoth, the rest of the film, its cast of characters and range of interests are relatively modest; with its idyllic small-town setting and structure of creeping danger, sudden hysteria, mass evacuation, military incursion and individual heroics, the recent film it most recalls in feel and scope is “Outbreak.”
Kicking off, very much a la “Twister,” with the obligatory action teaser that provides the Big Psychological Insight into the leading character, pic spends its first five minutes in Colombia, where volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) and his lady, along with myriad villagers, are desperately attempting to escape a holocaust of falling ash and fiery rock.
Harry makes it but his companion doesn’t, which helps explain why this dashingly handsome fellow is unattached when he is dispatched, four years later, to the pristine Pacific Northwest community of Dante’s Peak and meets its comely mayor, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton). As Harry explains it, his personal life has always had to take a back seat to being called “wherever there’s a volcano with an attitude.” Abandoned by her husband six years before, Rachel has a young boy and girl, runs a rustic cafe nearby and presides over a town recently named the second most desirable place in the country, population 20,000 or under, in which to live.
The U.S. Geological Survey has sent Harry in to check out some vague activity in the dormant volcano that towers above the friendly community. Trouble starts brewing in the form of two skinny-dippers who are boiled alive in a local hot spring and animals and vegetation that are killed by leaking gasses, but when Harry calls a meeting to warn of impending danger, his boss Paul (Charles Hallahan) steps in to reprimand him and minimize local leaders’ concern.
This break in the action gives Harry and Rachel some time to begin getting intimate, but Mother Nature rudely intervenes just as they are getting cozy: At exactly the one-hour point, the old cone, which hasn’t exploded in 7,000 years, blows its top, leveling most of the town’s charming old buildings and sending a rain of ash down upon the crazed hordes attempting to escape in their vehicles. It’s Pompeii all over again, except the victims are cappuccino-chugging tree-huggers rather than wine-slurping debauchers.
The visual effects — of the mountain erupting, ash pelting the Earth like a snowstorm, a block of storefronts shattering into the street, lava streaming down, a dam bursting, a bridge being swept away and the entire town being rendered a fossilized ruin overnight — are an eyeful; the devastation is palpable and realistic, a quantum improvement over such 1960s volcanic convulsions as “Krakatoa, East of Java” and “The Devil at 4 O’Clock.”
Physicality of the second half, then, will keep the audience going, but it is not quite sufficient to camouflage the elemental silliness of storyline. In the hopes that they have generated enough rooting interest in the leads, director Roger Donaldson and scripter Leslie Bohem send them on a wild goose chase up the mountain looking for Rachel’s kids, who have ill-advisedly gone to drag their stubborn old grandma out of the cabin she refuses to leave, come hell or high lava. The grandmother has been so one-dimensionally drawn as a total idiot, however, that it’s hard to countenance the risk of anyone’s life to save her.
Harry, Rachel and the kids narrowly escape any number of further dangers during “God’s big show” before a final molten belch sends them scurrying into an old tunnel or mine shaft for safety, which brings to mind the dismal setting of Bohem’s last screenplay, for “Daylight.” Events from there prove relatively anticlimactic, and filmmakers wisely wrap things up well under the two-hour mark.
The dramatis personae are as inoffensive as they are bland. Brosnan comes off as a low-key gentleman with significantly less heroic energy than he displayed as James Bond, while Hamilton is a serviceable good match for him; still, neither character possesses behavioral quirks or psychological layers to provoke sustained interest. The group of young scientists that supported the leads in “Twister” was loudly obnoxious, but the similar bunch here is entirely undifferentiated and boring. As their leader, however, Hallahan does supply a measure of credibility and humanity.
During the hourlong prelude to the fireworks, director Donaldson supplies some ornate crane and camera moves to gawk at; after that, the effects and stunts take over. His work overall is craftsmanlike, but, in the end, he doesn’t seem to possess the shameless showman instincts that might have made “Dante’s Peak” a more rousing experience.
Technical aspects are all ultra-pro, except for the end credits, in which the star’s name is misspelled in a mention of “Mr. Bronson’s Driver.” Must have been thinking of a different actor in a different era.