Visiting some friends last weekend and deciding on a movie to watch, we were leaning toward Twister. Scanning through Netflix, however, we ran across another mid-90s classic: Dante’s Peak. It turned out that multiple people had not seen this. I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters in 1997. I wasn’t sure why, but something was telling me that we really ought to watch it. It wasn’t just that I wanted to see how it held up, or that I wanted to share the experience; there was something else involved. So I advocated for Dante’s Peak and won the day.
[Spoilers ahead! I’m not sure I need to post a spoiler alert for a 25-year-old movie (How old?! Goodness gracious.), but better safe than sorry.]
I wasn’t expecting to write about Dante’s Peak. I was expecting some casual fun, and nothing more. But it’s a weirdly interesting movie. In 2021, it probably shouldn’t hold my attention for an hour and three quarters, but it does. I think that’s because it is simultaneously very good and very bad.
The key to its appeal is in the way it executes the familiar theme of “don’t mess with Mother Nature,” and the sub-theme, “scientists think they are infallible, but they don’t know everything.” If you can find a new way to express this theme, you can harness a great deal of cinematic power. I wonder if the 90s were a golden age for this type of movie: there was Dante’s Peak, Twister, possibly Titanic, and what I consider the gold standard, Jurassic Park. (The asteroid movies Deep Impact and Armageddon don’t count because the asteroids are unavoidable.)
Using a volcano eruption to express this theme was an inspired choice. It’s a horrifying yet realistic scenario, and it’s believable that there would still be plenty that science doesn’t know about how volcanos work. Not that this was a unique idea. There’s a rule that Hollywood always seems to make two of the same movie at once, and there was another one called Volcano that came out around the same time, but I never saw it. Apparently it involves a volcano erupting near or within the city of Los Angeles, which is completely implausible and makes me feel like I’m not missing anything.
That’s not the problem with Dante’s Peak—the problem is that most of the actual plot details and line-by-line writing are Trope City. I’ve rarely seen so much plot armor. There’s the vehicle that only keeps running because it’s got all the main characters in it. There’s the acid lake that burns and kills the character we don’t like and can’t touch the character we do like. All the characters we aren’t supposed to like, who make selfish or evil choices, die, and all the characters we are supposed to like survive. Whatever the characters need to survive always appears at exactly the right time. And the intensity of the volcanic activity “coincidentally” waxes and wanes based on the need to speed up or slow down the movie’s pacing.
All of that, however, just becomes something to laugh it, not get angry about. The truth is, the filmmakers could have gotten every single other thing wrong—honestly they came pretty close—as long as they got that theme right.
I would still not go so far as to say this is a good movie, in the sense that it is well-made. Far from it. It feels instead like the few things it got right were lucked into. Take the volcano science. The goal was to show that all the scientists investigating whether Dante’s Peak is on the verge of an eruption are arrogant and have a blind faith in their techniques. Except for one, Harry Dalton—an unconvincing Pierce Brosnan trying to pretend he’s a normal person—who is willing to listen to his gut, and of course, he’s the one who is right in the end.
The movie achieves this goal, but in the stupidest possible ways. Harry tries to convince the town council to alert the citizens to the danger of an imminent volcanic eruption. They refuse, worried about the impact on an impending development that will bring jobs to the town. Harry’s boss, Paul, jets in and immediately overrules Harry in front of the council. Paul tells a story about the last time he put a town on alert: nothing happened with the volcano, and the town died because all the business people and tourists got spooked. By way of ending the scene, the guy on the council who most vehemently opposed the alert turns to the town mayor, played well by Linda Hamilton, and says, “If they get scared off, Rachel, you’re the one who’s responsible.”
Of these four characters, guess which two survive the eruption and which two don’t. The only way they could have foreshadowed it any harder is if they’d edited CGI asterisks into the air above the characters who were about to die, like Vonnegut in Galápagos (that might be an obscure reference, but it shouldn’t be, go read it).
How about the other guy on the Science Team who wants to drive his robotic gadget, which is akin to some kind of volcano-sniffing dog, down into the crater for no real reason. Of course, the volcano begins to shake, rattle, and roll, the robot gets stuck, and he breaks his leg going after it and has to be airlifted out.
I appreciated the point that fancy technology is no match for a volcano; it’s just all very much on the nose. All of the terminology the Science Team uses is probably gobbledygook, including the savior Harry Dalton’s. All of the effects that we see during the eruption are probably just what they thought would look cool, rather than a reflection of what would actually happen.
Yet at bottom, it was all totally right on. How much do we really know about volcanoes? Probably not as much as we think. Maybe we’re actually pretty good at monitoring them now. I’m nowhere near an expert. But like any other science, there’s no way it’s 100% right. We only act like it is.
My uncle told me about his recent trip to Pompeii: his group was standing with their guide, gazing out at the exurbs of Naples, which are now creeping up toward the foot of Mount Vesuvius. The guide was telling the group about how, before famous eruption of 2,000 years ago that destroyed the town, there was another major eruption a few thousand years before that. The pyroclastic surge from that one, called the Avellino eruption, left deposits up to 10 feet deep across the area that Naples, a city of three million people, occupies today.
Six years after Dante’s Peak, The Guardian ran a column from a volcanologist warning that Italy was desperately unprepared for the next eruption.
Plus it’s not like we aren’t currently fucking with the planet to an insane degree. We don’t have a lot of data points to begin with concerning volcanos that erupt near population centers, and how informative are the ones we do have, given that the planet is undergoing so many radical and unpredictable changes?
In the end, watching Dante’s Peak is satisfying. It’s maybe the most satisfying terrible movie I’ve ever seen. That’s because, in the movies, it’s just really rewarding to see people get what they deserve. You could argue that this is kind of the point of fiction. It also doesn’t hurt that the eruption visuals hold up pretty well. They did get that part right. But little else.
Maybe that’s why seeing the volcano absolutely obliterate the entire denialist town and bury it under a mountain of ash is so cathartic, because you also imagine seeing it happen to the people who filmed this.
But it’s not just that. Because really, it’s not just them who deserve it. It’s all of us.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Please take care, write back if you can, and I’ll see you next week (without glasses).
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