Mar 5, 2020
Movie Duel: Dante's Peak vs. Volcano
Sometimes I like to start out my Movie Duels columns with a little bit of socio-historical analysis, where I pick out the main theme or subject matter in common between two movie twins, and I try to hypothesize why that particular theme was so big a blip on America’s cultural radar that we got two different movies about it. In the case of Dante’s Peak and Volcano, that kind of analysis is neither possible nor necessary. I couldn’t tell you why American movie studios in the year 1997 were hyped up about volcanoes. The question doesn’t really bear asking. Volcanoes are badass. They’re mountains that explode and ooze liquid fire out of the top. They’re inherently spectacular. In all likelihood, both movies were the result of a internal memo saying “Hey, have we done a volcano movie in a while?”
(I mean, I guess if you really wanted to apply some meta-analysis, you could take a look at how the ‘90s brought pioneering developments in VFX technology that studios used to revive the disaster genre, which had been more or less stagnant since its heyday in the ‘70s. But today, I’m going to heed the advice that’s often invoked in discussions about this kind of movie, and “turn off my brain”.)
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Neither of these two movies is very good. One might go so far as to say that both are, in fact, bad. But you can mean all sorts of things when you say a movie is “bad”, particularly with a movie as indebted to a certain genre as both of today’s offerings are. Two of those definitions are on display here.
Dante’s Peak beat Volcano to theaters by two months, and was slightly more successful, both critically and commercially. Most people who remember both movies will tell you that Dante’s Peak is not just “the good one”, but actually good. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. The first scene set the tone for me: Pierce Brosnan plays Dr. Harry Dalton, a volcanologist with the United States Geological Survey, who gets caught in a volcanic eruption and his fiancée is killed while they’re both trying to escape. That’s right, Dante’s Peak screenwriter Les Bohem apparently thought he needed to establish a motivation for a guy to save people from volcano eruptions. “His girlfriend got killed by a volcano, you see, so he really hates volcanoes.” Oh okay, thanks.
Look, I know that the tragic backstory is a genre convention, and I’m not going to sit here and argue that a movie is shitty simply because it follows a formula. But you should structure your movie in such a way that the formula feels organic to the situation.
Four years after his fiancée’s death, Dalton gets assigned to monitor a dormant volcano in Dante’s Peak, Oregon. Of course, he finds that it’s gonna blow. Of course, the greedy capitalists on the town council say he’s being alarmist and that tourism will suffer for nothing. Of course, Harry’s boss says he’s being overcautious because of his unprocessed grief, and needs to take a vacation. Of course, the only person who sort of believes Harry is the town’s mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), a typically ‘90s strong-single-mom-and-career-woman who radiates hilariously transparent goo-goo at him. It’s not so much that these story beats are predictable, it’s more that nobody made a cursory attempt to connect them in a believable way. Moreover, Dante’s Peak spends so much time ticking off every cliché on the list that the actual volcanic eruption doesn’t occur until nearly halfway through the movie.
Volcano unfolds with much less fuss. Michael Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) is the director of emergency management for Los Angeles County. A huge god damned volcano opens up right under L.A., spewing lava out of the La Brea tar pits. Roark, with the help of a seismologist (Anne Heche), spends the movie running around lava-drenched areas until he’s shouted at enough people and dodged enough lava bombs to save the city. No tragic backstory. No romance. No political clashes. A single goal characterizes the entire narrative: “stop that lava”. To a viewer itching for some ‘splosions who was blue-balled by Dante’s Peak’s meandering, Volcano’s approach is a breath of fresh air.
The two leads in Dante’s Peak are both playing against type. Pierce Brosnan, known for his confidently suave and suavely confident take on James Bond, is alternately shrieking at people for not sharing his paranoia and being an awkward knob who can’t relate to anything less than a million years old. Linda Hamilton, whom you don’t see much in the wild, is trying her best to bring strength to her career-woman role, but to a moviegoing public that knows her best from the times she shot robots in the face, she comes across as disappointingly willowy and deferential.
Volcano, by contrast, has Tommy Lee Jones playing Tommy Lee Jones. If you enjoy Tommy Lee Jones (full disclosure: I do), you’re set. He’s in top sick-of-this-shit mode here, with buckets of barbs for every occasion, paint-peeling sarcasm, and a snarl capable of freezing lava. The rest of the cast seems to be there because it would look weird for Jones to grumble to nobody. Anne Heche dates the movie with her presence and does fuck-all else. Future Transparent star Gaby Hoffman is extremely yell-at-able as Jones’s dipshit teenage daughter with seemingly no survival instinct. Don Cheadle is apparently here too? Whatever. Volcano knows its audience, and said audience paid to see people melt, not act.
And melt they do—and explode, and get crushed by debris, in lovingly rendered fashion. I will admit to having a soft spot for the kinds of VFX on display in both of these movies. Both Dante’s Peak and Volcano made heavy use of mini-modeling techniques pioneered by Independence Day, combined with clever composites and rotoscopes, and a good deal of on-set pyrotechnics and stunts, all filmed in steady, wide, confident ‘90s shots. There’s CGI, but it’s only used for unobtrusive touch-ups; there’s nothing the lay viewer can point to and say it definitely came out of a computer.
It really takes me back. I’m sure most everyone remembers the movies of their youth fondly, but I gain a new appreciation for this kind of VFX work with every modern blockbuster I see, dominated by slick CG-animated destruction, lugubriously rolling fireballs, pixelated debris tumbling according to questionable physics, and patently impossible stunts. Even the cheesiest ‘90s VFX shots pack a rawness and immediacy that today’s blockbusters largely lack.
In my last Movie Duels column, I covered two other takes on the ‘90s disaster movie: the famous pairing of Deep Impact and Armageddon. What struck me about Dante’s Peak and Volcano is how fittingly the two provide aesthetic and thematic analogues to that other pair. Look at the movie posters, to start with: one’s got a cool blue color temperature with a spot of menacing red creeping in, and the other is balls-out warm with liberal smatterings of fire.
Both sets of movies largely follow the color scheme established by their posters. But the similarities don’t end there. The cooler, darker colors on the posters for Dante’s Peak and Deep Impact posters prefigure a set of cooler, darker movies, figuratively as well as literally. Like Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak opted for (relative) realism, with no egregious scientific errors or affronts to common sense. Also like Deep Impact, it’s remarkably restrained by modern standards, with a deliberate pace, human drama, and a fair amount of deference to the disaster movie tropes of yesteryear.
Volcano, like Armageddon, pays less heed to stuff like that, and chooses to make up the gap with more (and bigger) action, plus—like Armageddon—quite a number of scenes that are either bizarrely stupid or just plain bizarre. Almost nothing in the movie follows established science about volcanoes, or really anything approaching basic operational knowledge about the world. Countless scenes feature brave city workers fighting the lava with firehoses and concrete barriers, much as one fights a flood with buckets. There’s a running device where a series of news reporters, who are almost never onscreen and often not on location at all, narrate the events that are happening in front of our faces to a never-seen audience. There’s a ham-handed attempt to introduce timely racial themes (two racist LAPD officers are reformed after a black guy helps them lift a thing), and there’s the tiniest wisp of ancillary plot thread about a doctor and her rich asshole fiancé whose resolution is literally replaced by an explosion. Volcano, like Armageddon, seems to enjoy packing in as much “Huh?” per minute as it can.
The comparison isn’t perfect. Deep Impact would never consider spicing up its tiresomely sober meandering with some gruesome B-movie pleasures, which Dante’s Peak is only too happy to do. Near the beginning, two amorous young yuppies get boiled alive in an overactive hot spring. Linda Hamilton’s mother-in-law suffers fatal chemical burns by climbing into a lake that has turned acidic. These scenes would be a much better tonal fit for Volcano, which never met an immolation it didn’t like.
Which needs to exist?
Your disaster movie does not deserve automatic praise for having stuff like “a story” and “scientific accuracy”. Kudos to Volcano for not falling into that particular trap.