Universal // 1997 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 25th, 2007
During the Great Disaster Movie Rush of the mid-90s, Universal blew out this volcano thriller, which now returns for another helping of ash, lava and Brosnan on its high-definition debut.
Pierce Brosnan (Die Another Day) headlines as Harry Dalton, a geologist that fears something is up with the dormant volcano neighboring the picturesque mountain town Dante's Peak. When he's called in to investigate some tremor activity, he becomes convinced that the volcano is about to blow its top.
As you would expect, his dire warnings go unheeded until too late and when the volcano finally disgorges its earthly brew of soot and debris, the hapless residents of Dante's Peak are caught unaware. Meanwhile, Dalton and the mayor of Dante's Peak, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), make a suicide run up the mountain to retrieve Wando's idiot kids and even idiot-er mother-in-law. Acid lakes, burning cinder, and terror clouds of death await them.
It's been a while since I've seen this one, but I'll tell you, Dante's Peak does cataclysmic disaster right. The flick has it where it counts, specifically, a generous does of screen time devoted to calamitous ruin perpetrated by a dickhead volcano. Director Roger Donaldson (who, at the time of the filming looked exactly like Bill Clinton) and his team of special effects gurus put together an entertaining, bang-for-your-buck, this-@#$%-just-gets-worse-and-worse disaster pic.
Actually, that's sort of a loaded compliment, because while the film's main selling point is the relentless stream of crap that happens to our protagonists, it's also an aspect that can soak up some criticism. The blueprint is obvious from the first time the peak belches: as the film rolls along, Donaldson and company will proceed to outdo themselves in the mayhem department, with each successive disaster being much more of catastrophe than the one before it, until you reach the ultimate cluster-F: the "something-something" cloud that blows up buildings. So while it's always cool to see increasingly destructive natural horror and property damage unfold on screen, the Dante's Peak method feels episodic and stilted at times: first they have to drive through ash -- then they run from lava -- then they're on a boat in an acid lake -- then they have to drive over hot coals -- then the dam breaks -- then the flood washes away a van -- then the killer cloud smites everything in its path -- then it's time for a mine cave-in. Basically, the film feels less like a cohesive story and more like a sequence of cool explosions and fire and falling rocks and screaming kids strung together.
The special effects are nifty and points for the old-school use of models. In the commentary track, Donaldson and Production Designer Dennis Washington lather praise on each other for the believability of the models, and yeah, they look cool and it's nice not to see an over-reliance on CGI, but fellas, you can so tell they're models. Still, the on-screen havoc is more than satisfactory and when the brief uses of CGI do pop in (backgrounds, volcanic clouds) they look surprisingly good. In fact, the visual effects I think are more believable than the modeling. All in all, Dante's Peak, while not a masterpiece, hits all the right notes for a disaster movie and it's obvious that the filmmakers left little in their budget to bring their destructive vision to fruition.
As for the HD presentation, the video quality (2.35:1, VC-1 encoded, 1080p) is through the roof. This is easily one of the finest HD titles I've seen, and takes the crown as the best looking catalog release from Universal I've seen. Color levels are even and robust, detailing is exquisite and those action scenes just sizzle with clarity. The Dolby Digital Plus audio mix pounds and when the volcano blows, the LFE will throttle your living room. From top to bottom, this is an outstanding technical disc. The extras have been resurrected from the standard DVD release, but are still pretty good: the feature commentary offers a nice insight into the behind-the-scenes story of the film and the hour-long documentary "Getting Close to the Show" is top-notch.
A decent disaster picture receives a fresh coat of paint that gives it some serious legs. Dante's Peak is the shiznit on HD DVD.
Sorry pun-lovers, but this disc doesn't blow.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director and Production Designer's Commentary
* "Getting Close to the Show" Making-of Documentary