Dante’s Peak Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie
by Erik Amaya
Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Dante’s Peak
Major motion picture making is very much the arcane art of guessing trends. Well, it’s also about chasing them, but every so often, enterprising executives attempt to lead the conversation. This often occurs when a seemingly original script comes into their office. Vetted by several layers of readers and development underlings, the executive reads a brief with a key concept in big bold letters — METEORS! BIOLOGICAL DISASTER! TRUMAN CAPOTE! (That last one is not a joke, but the way) — and gets inspired. But people in the industry get to talking to one another during evenings when the liquor flows freely. Soon, a rival executive hears about the hot Truman Capote script and asks, “don’t we have one?” Their development people go hunting and discover a different Truman Capote script was once logged by one of their readers. That script suddenly gets called into service because if rival executive can get his Truman Capote movie out first, he will look like the genius and the enterprising executive will be the also-ran despite having the innovative product. It’s a cousin to the Hydrox Effect (when a rival company creates interest in a product you devised first) and it happens way too often in Hollywood. Consequently, studios often find themselves releasing movies about meteors, volcanoes, and, yes, Truman Capote, within months of their competitors.
Which brings us to Dante’s Peak. Made during a fairly active period in which rival studios were buying similar high concept scripts, Dante’s Peak was the first of two competing volcano movies released in 1997. The other, aptly titled Volcano, may be a topic for another day. But I’ll tell you true this much: Volcano is not as cheesy as Dante’s Peak; therefore, Dante’s Peak is the better movie.
The plot concerns volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), who returns to working for the U.S. Geologic Survey following the death of his wife during a volcanic eruption in Columbia. His new assignment takes him to the small town of Dante’s Peak, Washington. An unusual spike in seismic activity suggests the long-resting volcano might be getting ready to release some of its pent up energies in the only way volcanoes can. But since the mountain has been dormant for so long, the town grew up in its massive shadow and the locals are skeptical about an eruption.
Arriving in town, Harry meets Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), the mayor and owner of the general store. She has two kids who will soon be in peril because this is Dante’s Peak, dammit!
Okay, I may have fibbed. Dante’s Peak takes an exceptional amount of time getting to the goods. First, we learn about some of the townsfolk, Rachel’s chilly relationship with her ex-mother-in-law, Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman), and a luxury condo developer who doesn’t want to spook people by saying words like “seismically active” and “hot death trap.”
Speaking of hot death traps, the movie likes to play with some of the pre-eruption phenomena science had identified by the time the script credited to Leslie Bohem was written. One of these is the natural hot springs in the area literally heating to scalding temperatures and cooking an unlucky pair of lovers. Rachel’s not-Joseph Gordon-Levitt son nearly cooks himself, but Harry stops him from jumping into the pit of liquid death.
I realize I made that sound a whole lot more exciting than it is. Dante’s Peak is surprisingly adverse to excitement for much of its running time. It has a lot of piece to put into place; like pitting Rachel and Harry into an incipient romance or introducing Ruth’s dog Roughy. But once it feels satisfied in setting up its players, things get wacky real quick as a first eruption levels Dante’s Peak to the ground, sending townsfolk scurrying. Harry and Rachel race time (and a pyroclastic flow) to save her kids before the volcano erupts in angry defiance of civilization and its comforts. The switch is somewhat uncomfortable as Dante‘s Peak was following Independence Day as a revival disaster pictures.
The disaster movie, as a defined film genre, had gone into a dormant period in the 1980s and 90s as Schwarzenegger action vehicles, Bruce Willis movies and Batman captured the popcorn money of movie goers. Long disasters movies with sweeping casts like The Towering Inferno, Swarm or Earthquake were seemingly dead. Consequently, Dante’s Peak’s slow start seems to come from this insecurity about attempting to revive the genre. But Volcano was coming and, by gum, Universal was going to beat 20th Century Fox to that box office lava.
Honestly, I think I’m losing my hold on this metaphor.
But once Dante’s Peak gets active, it delivers some of the cheesiest moments in any movie made in the mid-to-late 1990s. A flood threaten to trap the other USGS investigators on the wrong side of the river. Charles Hallahan plays the unlucky fool who gets trapped on the old bridge as flood waters rise. He looks on dumbstruck as his truck gets caught on the bridge and truck get flipped over by a house caught in the torrent, his final moment is punctuated by a Wilhem scream.
That dog I mentioned earlier? He gets rescued by Harry in a scene which might be self-aware if not for the film’s single greatest moment of boneheaded exposition a few scenes earlier. After rescuing the kids, Harry and Rachel go to save Grandma Ruth. Once they find her, her house is engulfed in one of the film’s few lava effects. The group attempts to flee the scene via Ruth’s metal boat, but soon they all hear a strange sizzling.
“The sulfuric gasses have turned the lake acidic,” says Harry.
And poor Linda Hamilton, as Rachel, responds, “acid eats metal.”
Thanks screenwriter! And if you’re still lost, the next shot cuts to a close-up of Ruth’s boat disintegrating. The yuks keep coming as she jumps out of the boat in an attempt to push it to the dock at the other end of the lake, but thanks to bad editing and camerawork, it looks like she’s trying to save herself despite the dock being a few feet away. It might be the dopiest and cheesiest five or six minutes of a movie you will see this year.
Normally, I mention performances, but they’re kind of non-starters here. Brosnan and Hamilton give the same performance whether they’re in good movies (like Goldeneye or Terminator 2) or bad ones (like Bag of Bones or King Kong Lives). In fact, their steadiness is so steady that they only look like bad performers because a poorly thought-out movie is happening around them. Other actors, like Hoffman, Hallahan, the kids and George Clooney’s eventual producing part Grant Heslov offer perfectly serviceable disaster movie performances. Like the leads, they only look bad because the script and director Roger Donaldson are uncomfortable with the disaster movie milieu.
Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones is riding Volcano‘s lava flow just behind them.
I realize I’ve definitely been more critical of Dante’s Peak than movies like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble or Over the Top, but the critical mass of misfires is the charm of the film. It gets so many basic things wrong, but it still has a strange appeal for being so half-hearted. Typically, cynically-built studio pictures like this just sort of thud into nothingness (i.e. the never-produced Hot Zone script or Deep Impact), but the overflow of mistakes in Dante’s Peak make it endless entertaining and fascinating.
Dante’s Peak is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It’s also available on budget Blu-ray and DVD releases.