Universal // 1997 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // June 5th, 2000
She's just clearing her throat. She's not yet begun to sing.
1997 was, among other things, the year of the Volcano movie. After the box office success of Twister a year before the time for big budget disaster flicks was at hand. Two volcano movies, Dante's Peak and Volcano, came out that year, but of the two only Dante's Peak made me leave the theater feeling like I got my money's worth. Formulaic, with its share of weaknesses, but a great thrill ride with some good characters and a very enjoyable movie provided you mostly leave your brain at the door. I categorize this one as a guilty pleasure movie, but it does rise above that into the "good movie" category on occasion. Dante's Peak was the very first Collector's Edition disc to be released by Universal, and it qualifies by any standard. A stunning anamorphic transfer, a soundtrack that will show off your system to the neighbors if you let it, and a great collection of extras combine to make this one of the best discs I have that we still hadn't written a review for. It's time we introduced the new DVD buying public to this little gem.
Dante's Peak did have one great thing going for it: scientific realism. Director Roger Donaldson (Species, The Getaway) actually studied to be a geologist and when this script came his way went out and found some real life vulcanologists to approve the details of just what happens when a volcano erupts. Certainly not every volcano does everything this one did, but some do, and all of them do some of the things you see, all well depicted on the screen. In this regard you don't need to check your brain before entering.
The characters were better developed than usual for this fare also. In fact, the first half of the movie is devoted to character development, along with all the ominous signs that things are going to go to heck in a handbasket soon. Donaldson called on his friend Pierce Brosnan (GoldenEye, The Thomas Crown Affair, The World is not Enough) to play the lead (I'd like my mountain shaken, not stirred) and Linda Hamilton (Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Beauty and the Beast) as the co-star and romantic interest. These two were highly professional and even managed to have chemistry in an action picture.
One thing today's audiences demand out of a disaster pic is hard core special effects, and Dante's Peak does not disappoint. Both Digital Domain and Banned From the Ranch put some superlative effort into the visual effects, and even the conventional stunts and effects were first rate. The results were a superior combination of CGI, miniatures, and large scale set pieces that made you feel like a mountain and the town below it really were coming apart at the seams.
The supporting cast were all good character actors, particularly the two children. I was also happy to see Grant Heslov (one of the sidekicks from True Lies) again as the coffee junkie and fellow vulcanologist.
Well, lets get to the plot synopsis. Brosnan plays Harry Dalton, a vulcanologist with the US Geological Service, who is sent to investigate evidence that the dormant volcano Dante's Peak is showing signs of life. In the small bucolic town nestled just below the slumbering giant he meets mayor Rachel Wando (Hamilton), a single mother of two precocious children. Dalton sees the handwriting on the wall and wants to put the town on alert for possible evacuation, but the request is refused by his politically conscious superior. The evidence mounts until even the pooh-poohing boss is satisfied, but by then it is too late. The mountain erupts, and it is time to get out of Dodge. Unfortunately our precocious kids have hijacked the family truck and headed up the mountain to save the grandma who was too proud to leave her place, and now Harry and Rachel must rescue the kids, granny, and dog, and somehow not get burned, shaken or stirred themselves in the process.
Some of this will sound familiar to anyone who has read "Disaster Flicks 101: A Primer" but it's well done for the most part. Once the mountain starts to rock and roll, it's time to just hold on to your seat and ride it out with the characters.
Universal really came through with a great disc, especially for an early effort. Made before two years of continuing progress in doing digital transfers, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer on this disc is reference quality. The picture is without flaw, with great color, contrast, exceedingly sharp detail, and no artifacting or pixelation. There were plenty of places in this film that could have suffered from break up, such as during the many smoke or ash-laden scenes, and plenty of times when colors might have bled or been oversaturated, but were rich and vivid without such flaws. The blacks are inky, the fleshtones warm and natural, and the bright reds and oranges of the lava come to life.
The soundtrack matches the quality of the video, and is one to show off your system to your friends. This is one movie soundtrack to make you ensure nothing too valuable is left on a shelf where it might be shaken off. Frequency range is terrific, from the highs to the lowest lows, with the dynamic range to accompany it. Still the soundtrack accurately places even subtle and quiet sound, and dialogue is spaced across the front soundstage. Sounds are exceedingly accurate, and do its job of bringing you into the film and feel what is happening. If I had any complaint it was that dialogue occasionally needed a few decibel boost to keep up. Still this is one of the better DD 5.1 soundtracks of any discs in my collection.
On to the extras! Yes, there are quality extras as well. First is the hour long documentary "Getting Close to the Show" which is an excellent look at every aspect of the film from pre-production, stunts, and visual effects, to the finished film, along with plenty of interviews with most of the cast and many of the filmmakers discussing their roles and projects. A first rate documentary, and what all discs containing "making of" features should strive for. Also impressive is the feature length commentary track with director Roger Donaldson and Production Designer Dennis Washington, as they go scene by scene discussing where and how the scene was done. A bit technical for some laymen, but a valuable insight for would be filmmakers. Production notes are both on the discs and in a booklet (different notes in each), cast and crew info for the main cast and the director, and the theatrical trailer complete the extra package. A respectable group of bonus features, especially the documentary.
There is really only one thing wrong with this movie: the script. Screenwriter Leslie Bohem (Daylight, Nightmare on Elm Street 5) not only stuck to formula so closely you could use it as a recipe, but had some insipid moments within the film. An early scene made me cringe; first Harry is called in from vacation, against his will. His co-workers all deride him for not wanting to take a vacation, and the scene never knows whether he is a compulsive worker or someone who really wanted to get away. Harry seems to alternate between being "the best man we've got" to an overly impulsive dimwit in the eyes of his boss.
Following formula, we have to start the film with a totally unrelated action scene, in this case another volcano erupting 4 years ago, killing Harry's fiancée. Supposedly this is going to provide a source of angst for the character, but it gets left behind quickly, and seems only to explain why a guy looking as good as Pierce Brosnan is available for Linda Hamilton to snatch up. Worse yet, there is the subplot where "we can't close down the town, business will suffer" straight out of Jaws. There is a high powered investor who will provide jobs in the town but not if there is any doubt about the stability of the volcano. There is one throw-away scene where it appears that the investor has romantic notions about Linda Hamilton's character that gets left behind quickly. That whole subplot about the investor should have been tossed as it only adds a muddle to the story, and making it look cheaper in the process. Of course following formula we had to have the kids, granny, and an intrepid dog to save. The kids and granny worked well enough; the dog was superfluous and cheapened the movie.
Sure it's formulaic, and there are weaknesses in the story, but high drama isn't what this story is about. Watching a move like this is like stepping onto a roller coaster -- a buildup of anticipation followed by a wild ride. In that category this film succeeds and even manages some character development and people to care about in the process. I wouldn't ask for more. This is a disc that people who like this genre should have in their collection, and may have been missed by those who came late to the DVD bandwagon. I highly recommend this one for purchase.
The film and disc are exonerated of any charges. The screenwriter is fined and asked to hone the dialogue and motivations of characters a little better.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary Track
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Info