Dante's Peak

Dante's Peak

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hollywood has a habit of working in cycles, with everybody tackling the same subject at once. Sometimes it's vampires, sometimes it's alien invasions. In the summer of 1997 it was volcanoes. By contrast with the cheerily cheesy Volcano, Dante's Peak was the grown-up, serious version, working super hard to get the science right and present realistic peril. It sticks pretty closely to standard disaster movie formula wth a family in danger, lots of expendable minor characters and a gruesome early scene heralding a long stretch in which hardly anything happens. There is also a cute dog.

Facing off against this particular volcano is town mayor Rachel (Linda Hamilton). As tough and practical as any of the actress' characters, she looks as though she could do a pretty good job of battling the magma by herself, but formula requires that an official be accompanied by a scientist, and so we get Harry (Pierce Brosnan). For Harry, it's personal. A volcano killed his girlfriend and he's out to prove that he's man enough to defeat this one. Squashing the capable Hamilton firmly into a supporting role, Brosnan emotes furiously, using both his acting faces. He's aided by a suitably manly truck which can drive through rivers and smash through barricades, and which has tyres that are immune to lava. In spare moments he effortlessly romances the mayor, giving him a motive to drive up the erupting volcano in order to rescue her mawkish kids.

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So far, so awful, but Dante's Peak has two redeeming qualities. The first is its unusual take on the volcanic process which, rather than being hampered by realism, uses that to create scenarios we haven't seen elsewhere in cinema. The second is its cinematography, which makes the most of alien-looking ash-strewn landscapes and the contrast potential of the glowing magma on the snowy peak. It's approached with a degree of understatement that makes it much creepier, especially in the nerve-racking scene where our heroes find themselves adrift on a lake of sulphuric acid.

Once the film gets going, the action sequences are rapid and inventive. There are plenty of clich├ęs - the blocked road, the self-sacrificing grandmother, the dog rescue - but the bizarre setting goes some way toward reinvigorating them. Occasionally dodgy effects are balanced by effective use of natural phenomena like raging rivers to create a proper sense of the scale of the threat. Crucially, this strange world feels real, and the weak, perfunctory ending doesn't detract from the thrill of the ride.

Reviewed on: 16 Sep 2012
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A vulcanologist visits a small town and realises the volcano beside it is about to erupt.
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Director: Roger Donaldson

Writer: Leslie Bohem

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, Jamie Renée Smith, Jeremy Foley, Elizabeth Hoffman, Charles Hallahan

Year: 1997

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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