By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
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"In the constant struggle of man against nature," the press notes inform us, "it is the most devastating adversary of all--a force... which suddenly explodes to wreak havoc and destruction on an unsuspecting population." The notes are, of course, referring to a volcano. But...wait! Didn't I read the same thing last year about tornadoes? And sometime before that, about floods? And earthquakes? And fires? And tidal waves? Gosh, now I'm all confused. After all, if you can't trust studio publicists to give you accurate information, whom can you trust? Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which really is "the most devastating adversary of all"?
Doubtless, the adversary that Universal--maker of the new Dante's Peak--is most worried about is Fox's competing Volcano, due out in a few months. But Universal, without cutting corners on the special effects, has managed to be first out of the paddock, which may be all it takes in 1997's lava lottery. The title is clever: Dante Alighieri may also have written Purgatorio and Paradiso, but those volumes left only the faintest footprints on our collective cultural memory. When we hear "Dante's," it's the name Inferno we all automatically supply.
The association is so strong that you wonder why the townspeople of Dante's Peak, the film's setting, ever decided to move there. What did they expect from a place with that name, fer cryin' out loud? Sugarplum fairies? It's Dante's Peak, people. Yer gonna fry!
That's pretty much the message Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, brings to the town of 8,000 after he finds two charbroiled corpses in a local hot spring. Harry, the notes tell us, is "handsome but troubled"--as though the yoking of these two qualities were somehow unusual--the latter because he saw his girlfriend die during the opening credits. (My date was merely mildly nauseated.)
Harry wants to warn the town, but his more cautious superior (Charles Hallahan) overrules him. "Wait till we gather more data," he grumbles. With a team of experts and lots of high-tech gadgetry, Harry hangs around for a week, which gives him time to romance pretty (but troubled) mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), who single-handedly raises two children and runs the local cappuccino joint while trying to locate sleazy developers who are stupid enough to invest in a town that sits on a dormant volcano and has Dante in its name.
I'm not much of a volcanologist--I don't even portray one on TV--but if this film is as accurate as the producers claim, that particular "science" is so primitive as to be useless. Harry's team runs tests for a week, and all their instruments suggest that nothing is going to happen. Then all at once they find that the situation has progressed so far that the town's water supply is brown with subterranean crud. How had they managed not to detect some intermediate signs of trouble?
Of course, Harry's instincts have said all along that this one is going to blow, but his stubborn boss has insisted on going by the hard data. All of this has the interesting effect of making the boss seem like an idiot, even though he is, in fact, being perfectly reasonable. I mean, really: He's going to trust Harry's alarmist warnings over the data, knowing that Harry might be just a little jumpy after that fricasseed-fiancee scene? Of course not. Aesthetically, the deck is really stacked against this poor character, because the audience knows something none of the geologists know: We paid $7.50 a pop--and not to see a movie about a dormant volcano! That pup'd better blow and blow big, or we'll be marching up to Universal City and staging our own orgy of mayhem, without special effects.
Of course, the mountain does blow: The last half of the movie has Harry, with Rachel's family in tow, fleeing lava flows, sulfur clouds, shock waves, you name it. In fact, Dante's Peak is sort of a grab-bag disaster film: There are floods, fires, earthquakes, high winds--just about every possible natural threat, all emanating from this one source.
And while it does play some nice tricks and work up a fair head of excitement, its plot and characters are also a grab bag. Harry's fiancee trauma comes from Twister, as does the plot contrivance of having the protagonists sidetracked to rescue grandma; the safety-versus-economic-interests shtick recaps Jaws, as do several specific scenes. Almost every piece of its construction is borrowed from a previous hit; there isn't much originality here.
Director Roger Donaldson has an eclectic, even weird filmography, with such thrillers as No Way Out and Species cheek-by-jowl with Cocktail and Cadillac Man. He can generate suspense without even trying, which made Marie, probably his most obscure American film, particularly interesting: Every scene dripped with foreboding, even though it wasn't remotely supposed to be a thriller. But despite Donaldson's skills, Dante's Peak fizzles toward the end: Its structure is simply self-defeating.
The film establishes a certain rhythm of ever-bigger threats. Then suddenly, it pulls itself in; the characters are pushed into a horrifying but unspectacular situation. We wait for the next big effect, but what we get is a dissolve: Suddenly it's a few days later, and we see the final resolution. These concluding scenes are so abrupt, so totally out of keeping with what has gone before, that they neutralize most of the film's excitement. The script almost literally paints the characters into a corner, then expects us to be thrilled when they tiptoe out after the paint has dried.
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