Never Ignore The Expert | Dante’s Peak Turns 20

What happens when you ignore the advice of the expert? Nothing if you’re lucky. But what if they’re right, but it’s too late to do anything?

These questions lie at the heart of Dante’s Peak which has recently turned 20. The film follows many of the rules of disaster movies. The expert is the lone voice warning of an impeding volcanic eruption. Mother Nature is planning to rain down disaster on a small American town. This warning is ignored until it’s almost too late.

And the hero? It’s a brilliant yet emotionally vulnerable expert. In Dante’s Peak, our expert-on-hand is Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), the best vulcanologist employed by the US Geological Survey. Harry becomes convinced that the long-dormant Dante’s Peak (the volcano) is about to erupt and argues that Dante’s Peak (the town) needs to prepare to evacuate. His warnings are ignored by his boss, his colleagues and most of the residents of the town.

It’s not hard to see why Harry’s fears aren’t initially taken seriously. The tests show no unusual activity at the volcano. His boss Paul favours a cautious approach to avoid panic. Harry’s colleagues are also unconvinced that there’s an immediate need to evacuate. The evidence does not quite support his analysis.

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What’s left unsaid is that Harry’s concerns may be influenced by the circumstances of his girlfriend’s death. She was killed during a research trip to Colombia years earlier. They waited too long before evacuating when a volcano erupted. He is emotionally involved and therefore, his interpretation of the data is suspect.

So, how do we know Harry is the best? He carries out tests and looks at computers, he warns his team by describing how to boil a frog. He’s the best. He becomes friendly with the town mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) however Harry’s skill is understanding volcanoes, not playing politics. He just has to find the evidence to support his intuitions. But by then, it’s almost too late.

Of course, that may not be enough to convince the viewer that something bad is about to happen. What more do we need? Well, Dante’s Peak (the town) has recently been named the second most desirable place to live in the United States, population under 20,000. There’s a major economic investment on the horizon that’s going to re-invigorate this idyllic community.

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There are also the human dramas. Harry argues with his boss Paul about the situation. Rachel runs her business while raising her two children as a single parent. She also has to contend with a stubborn mother in law Ruth who lives on Dante’s Peak (the volcano). Ruth refuses to leave her home. She does not accept the possibility of danger. This is going to cause problems later.

Meanwhile, the volcano sits in the background. It appears utterly innocent. Except for the ominous strings that foreshadow what’s to come.

I first saw Dante’s Peak when it came out 20 years ago. We were supposed to see a re-mastered The Empire Strikes Back at our local cinema. However, the only tickets left were in the front row and I refused to sit there. That decision caused some tension with my siblings. We ended up watching Dante’s Peak on VHS at home instead.

One could argue that Dante’s Peak can’t quite sustain itself. The machinery required to propel the narrative is a tad too visible at times. For instance, there are numerous plot-holes. Why doesn’t Harry make more of a fuss about being asked to work during his holiday? Isn’t there anyone else in the US Geological Survey who could have reviewed the data? Why does Rachel leave her kids alone during the town meeting when there’s a risk that the volcano might erupt at any moment? Why would the kids decide to steal her car to rescue Grandma? Why are there only two bridges out of Dante’s Peak (the town)?

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Safe in a boat. What could possibly go wrong?! Source

There are other problems. The supporting cast are given very little to do. It’s also not particularly diverse in its casting. The effects are solid but not particularly spectacular.

However, I think Dante’s Peak holds together as a disaster film. There are some effective moments. In particular, the boat trip across the acidic lake works. The characters appear to be in genuine peril. The scenes of mass panic are also well-choreographed.

Both leads give solid performances in their roles. Harry Dalton might be the hero but Rachel Wando is more impressive. She runs a successful business, participates in her local community and raises her two children as a single parent. The film never suggests that she doesn’t cope with these responsibilities. The chemistry between the leads makes the developing romance between the characters convincing. As a result, their bond doesn’t appear too forced when the trouble begins. This is perhaps what keeps the film altogether.

For the most part, the special effects have aged well. The practical elements help. There are a couple of exceptions. The opening sequence now looks faintly ridiculous. But, I’d argue that the effects in Dante’s Peak have aged much better than those used by its contemporary Volcano. Both films might involve the same type of natural disaster but they take different approaches. In Volcano, human ingenuity triumphs over nature. Not so in Dante’s Peak. Humans can only hope to escape.

If they’d listened to the expert, then things might have turned out another way. But that would be a different film.


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