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by Mark Leeper

Mark Leeper writes: I am a lifelong fan of science fiction--well, at least since age 6. By training I am a mathematician and mathematics is still a passion of mine. I joined Bell Laboratories in 1978, along with my wife Evelyn. Finding no outlet for science fiction at Bell Labs, Evelyn and I founded a science fiction club that same year and have run it ever since. We had to tell members what books we were reading for the club, so was born a notice, now a weekly publication called the MT VOID. I write a weekly editorial and film reviews for the notice, Evelyn writes book reviews and we both write other odd pieces. Having the reviews and assorted articles, we also re-post them to the Internet. From there they are reposted various and sundry places.

The Daytrippers -- Anaconda
Liar Liar -- Grosse Pointe Blank
Chasing Amy -- Romy and Michele's High School Reunion
Dante's Peak -- Volcano

Dante's Peak

This is a disaster film that has
nearly everything going for it but plot-
originality. But for a couple of nice touches in
the scenario, it is very much the story the viewer
expects. However, with the exception of a few
exaggerated scenes, this is pretty much what
volcanoes really do. For me that makes DANTE'S
PEAK the volcano film to see this spring.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 2 positive, 13 negative, 5 mixed

When I see a historical film I ask myself whether it is a good story and whether it is accurate to history. Similarly when I see a disaster film, particularly one in which the menace is caused by something scientific, I ask myself is it a good story and is it scientifically accurate. I tend to weigh the latter as important much more than most people since for me a good deal of the value of the film is to show me something that could happen to me. I can escape into a film much better if I think that what I am seeing is reasonably possible. Well, DANTE'S PEAK deserves only very lukewarm interest for its story, which is in large respects a very off-the-shelf disaster film plot. For me, however, a big plus is that most of the time it was not really very far from scientific accuracy. There are a few unrealistic scenes (most I recognized from having read the FAQ included below), but for the most part the film was fairly believable.

DANTE'S PEAK opens with a scene in a volcanic eruption. The force of the eruption has nature reversed in some fundamental ways. The sky is blotted out and flaming rocks are falling, seemingly from the clouds. Volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) has allowed himself to get to close to the eruption he was studying and it paying the price. This is four years before the action of the story, but it effectively conveys the Biblical doomsday feel that is associated with being caught too near a volcanic eruption. A few years later he still works for the U.S. Geological Survey when he is asked to take a look at some seismic activity in a place called Dante's Peak, Washington. Even he points out that it is a cornball name for a volcanic mountain. This place was just voted to be the second best small town in the country. Shortly after he arrives Dalton decides that small town number three is due for a promotion and this region which has not seen an active volcano since some time about 5000 BC may be ready to go active again.

It will come as no surprise to the viewer that Dalton's suspicions are well-founded and the volcano does indeed erupt. The plot follows the familiar disaster film formulae of disagreement over whether there real is a threat to the small town, with Dalton's supervisor (Charles Hallahan) unwilling to commit to believing an eruption is coming. Having been involved with the politics of having called a false alarm in the past, he wants to avoid at all costs a false alarm here. But the cost turns out to be high with many people caught in the town at the time of the disaster. Once the eruption comes there are familiar sequences of people getting into danger and of rescue. But at least the threats are relatively realistic for the eruption as are the numbers of people killed.

There are some nice touches in the script. There are financial reasons for the citizens of Dante's Peak to want to ignore the warnings. However the townspeople, led by town mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton of TERMINATOR), are smarter than townspeople usually are in disaster films. If the U.S. Geological Survey says it is time to go, they seem ready enough. The film is much more about the USGS team's wrangling to decide if they feel the mountain is really going to go. That seems fully believable. Much of what we see seems realistic, even at the expense of some visual excitement. The sky is darkened and ash is falling so it looks a lot like a dismal snowy day. One scene that does seem to be driven by the effects rather than logic shows elevated highway just outside this tiny isolated town. The special effects work is very convincing particularly in a flood scene near the end. There is a somewhat contrived setting near the end of the film. I might almost believe it would be there, but that the ELF would work from there seems unlikely.

The makers of other recent disaster films could take a lesson from DANTE'S PEAK. Unlike VOLCANO or JURASSIC PARK characters you get to know and get to like do not survive. There is some risk in killing off a good character, but it maintains the dramatic tension of the film and keeps the story realistic. The team sent from the U.S. Geological Survey actually look like a team of people that the USGS might send, not a bunch of attractive young actors. Other nice touches in the script include the fact there is no human villain. You would think that a film with a volcano does not need a human villain, but the makers of a major film like OUTBREAK, for example, felt necessary to put in a human to defeat as well as the title threat.

While the story values are weaker than they might be, DANTE'S PEAK is a good cinematic recreation of what it must be like to experience an erupting volcano. It is certainly the better of the two volcano films being released this spring. Not a great film but worth a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info about Dante's Peak at the Internet Movie Database


VOLCANO is a bizarre disaster film
that treats an erupting volcano as an urban crisis.
It is sort of a horizontal version of THE TOWERING
INFERNO. Lava, seen as the main threat from the
volcano, is treated a sort of monster that lurks in
tunnels and crawls out on the street devouring all
in its path. Most of the real dangers of a volcano
like the force of the blast and superheated gasses
get what is at most a superficial and much toned
down treatment. Tommy Lee Jones stars as a
functionary trying to keep a lid on the problem.
The visuals are colorful, but the script is just
terrible. DANTE'S PEAK had its faults and perhaps
was no great shakes, but VOLCANO cannot hold a
candle to it. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4)

This is the spring of two different volcano movies, DANTE'S PEAK and VOLCANO and it surprising how differently the two films treat the same sort of disaster. DANTE'S PEAK was a dark and downbeat film taking place in Mt. St. Helens territory and its disaster is filmed in dark colors. Its message is that volcanoes are immensely powerful forces of nature and even with the help of technology about the best we can hope for from a confrontation is to get away alive. But they are impressive. VOLCANO is set in Los Angeles among famous landmarks. It tells us that with a bit of ingenuity and a little time any problems including volcanoes can be solved. Much of VOLCANO is tongue-in-cheek with in-jokes about well- known Los Angeles personalities and digs at the controversial Metro system. In short VOLCANO is just one more colorful action film. It seem to have had little interest in seriously exploring the possibility of a volcano in Los Angeles. It does not seem to have been based at all on any existing accounts of real eruptions.

For Mike Roark (played by Tommy Lee Jones), the director of the Office of Emergency Management, the first day of the disaster starts off badly... with an earthquake. In spite of officially being on vacation, he wants to jump immediately into action. But his first problem is that he has to find a sitter to manage his rambunctious thirteen-year-old daughter Kelly (Gaby Hoffman). When he gets to his job, Mike's way of managing is to be in the field investigating while his assistant (Don Cheadle) manages things in the office. It is not long before the earthquake problem gives way to a mystery of several workers who were mysteriously burned in an underground tunnel by something strange that left no sign of its presence. Whatever it is leaves scorching only on its victims, not on the walls of the tunnel. It is time to call in spunky seismologist Dr. Amy Hoffmann (Anne Heche) and between them they discover that the real problem is volcanic flames that creep up through the cracks in the floor of the tunnel, then sneak away before they can be seen or leave a scorch-mark. Amy discovers this secret, but before she can tell anyone, the flames attack with a genuine volcanic eruption geysering out of the La Brea Tar Pits. This micro-mini-eruption sends flaming rocks into the air which come down like cannonballs for blocks around and ash starts falling like snow. But then the real threat appears, streams of hot liquid lava come out of the volcano. They flood Wilshire Boulevard setting fires and burning cars (but for some reason never exploding the gas tanks). With angry lava in the streets the question becomes, can it be stopped before it reaches actual homes? Also, can a coalition of Los Angeles residents put aside their ethnic differences and work together to save the city from the uncontrolled lava stream?

Director Mike Jackson has done some intelligent films including THREADS, THE RACE FOR THE DOUBLE HELIX, A VERY BRITISH COUP, L.A. STORY, and INDICTMENT. Each of those is a modest film that reaches for the mind rather than getting a gut reaction. Unfortunately, that was not how he made VOLCANO. This was a script that he should have turned down from the start, but perhaps he wanted to see what he could do with a bigger budget. The story and screenplay are by first-timer Jerome Armstrong, though Billy Ray shares the authorship of the script. Tommy Lee Jones is okay, but needs to get a little more variety into the roles he plays. He has one interesting character, but he has played that character too often. More interesting is the seismologist played by Anne Heche. She currently is also playing Johnny Depp's long- suffering wife in DONNIE BRASCO.

Armstrong throws frequent jokes into the script, though most of us will have to have many of the jokes explained. Apparently Dennis Woodruff's car, seen prominently in a pool of lava, is a familiar Los Angeles sight. Also familiar is a billboard with a particular actress. Just whether a certain restaurant chain we see multiple times is an in-joke or a product placement, I am not sure. There are some scenes probably were not very well thought-out. Mike seems to be abusing his power asking for special attention from the fire department for his daughter. This probably did not sit well with the audience. In one scene Amy apparently measures a temperature of the ground and gets a reading of 600 degrees just below her feet. That would have burned away her feet. While the special effects are generally fairly good, the digitized lava flows are not always convincing. Neither are some of the matte paintings.

If you want to see an action adventure see VOLCANO, if you want to have a feel for what it really would be like to be caught too close to an erupting volcano, see DANTE'S PEAK. VOLCANO rates a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info about Volcano at the Internet Movie Database

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