Dante’s Peak

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Dante’s Peak (1997) is an affective disaster film that delivers its thrills on all cylinders while never sacrificing characterization for spectacle. Director Roger Donaldson had long been one of the great directors of thrillers by the time he made Dante’s Peak and is largely responsible for the quality of the film’s drama. Dante’s Peak was released just months before the similar disaster film Volcano (1997) and received negative reviews in comparison. However time has been kinder to Dante’s Peak and I believe it to be the superior film.

Dante’s Peak is at its heart a film about a family coming together. When Pierce Brosnan’s volcanologist comes to the town of Dante’s Peak to investigate the volcano he begins a kind of romance with Linda Hamilton. Soon Brosnan assumes the defacto role of father for her children, thus completing the nuclear family just as the eruption commences. The first hour of Dante’s Peak‘s runtime is dedicated to mapping out the relationship between Hamilton and Brosnan. While most of this is corny and predictable it serves as a perfect balance to the carnage that awaits. It also allows the viewer to invest emotionally in the characters before putting them into jeopardy.

Pierce Brosnan’s character Harry Dalton is in many ways another iteration of Smith, the protagonist of Donaldson’s first feature Sleeping Dogs (1977). Both men become victims of a political machine to which they believe that they belong. Where Smith’s journey away from that system propels him into a world of violent resistance against his will Harry Dalton is propelled against his will into the midst of a horrific natural disaster. In both films Donaldson presents these disasters as inevitable; as a form of moral test for the hero to undergo. Almost all of Donaldson’s films feature some variation of this character. After Smash Palace (1981) Donaldson’s protagonists begin to move in a more family oriented direction where the need for the insular community that family, in the philosophical sense, provides.

Despite all of this some viewers today may reject Dante’s Peak outright based on the belief that the special effects of the eruption won’t hold up. I can assure all of those would be viewers that the effects in Dante’s Peak still hold up and do in fact surpass most of the effects one sees today. That said, I don’t believe that so much value should be placed on the “realism” of an effect. If the human drama of a film is engaging or moving that is worth so much more than a CGI explosion or alien monster.

Growing up in the nineties Dante’s Peak was one of the few adrenaline inducing movies my mother would watch. I think this is mostly due to her affection for Pierce Brosnan’s character on the television show Remington Steele (1982-87). Either way Dante’s Peak was a staple of our Friday nights. Whether nostalgia factors in or not Dante’s Peak is still a top of the line nail biter even today.