Following the runaway success of 'Twister' in early 1996, the late 1990s saw the first earnest Hollywood resurgence of the disaster flick since the genre's heyday in the '70s. Hits like 'Armageddon' and 'Deep Impact' would light up the box office through the rest of the decade, while of course James Cameron's epic 'Titanic' had steamrolled its way into the history books by the end 1997. Sandwiched somewhere between all these sinking ships and runaway tornados were two movies featuring gigantic amounts of scorching lava: the aptly-titled 'Volcano,' and first out of the gate, 'Dante's Peak.'
While 'Volcano' may have ultimately scored slightly more notoriety and a larger worldwide gross, 'Dante's Peak' is probably the better movie of the two. That's not saying much, of course, when you're dealing with an idea that in and of itself is completely inane. Given today's early-warning detection, the concept of any sort of "surprise" volcano eruption is a pretty tough one to get any audience to swallow. But while 'Volcano' simply wallowed in watching famous Los Angeles locations get toasted, 'Dante's Peak' takes its ludicrous premise seriously, exploiting the sheer stupidity of its situation and characters not for laughs but trumped-up pathos, and it's actually kind of endearing.
The plot itself is fairly straight-forward. Although the town of Dante's Peak was once dubbed the "second most desirable place to live in America," the arrival of geologist Dr. Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) would seem to signal otherwise. Much to the dismay of mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), Dalton believes the long-dormant volcano underneath the town is about to wake up -- and it's not going to be in a very good mood. With a none-too-subtle nod to the old 'Jaws' plotline of, "Hey, we're not gonna close the beaches!", most of the townsfolk are not too keen on seeing their livelihoods go up in smoke, but denial ceases to be an option as things get hot, oozy and deadly real quick.
I will freely admit to knowing next to nothing about geology, and to be fair, the filmmakers behind 'Dante's Peak' claim have consulted real-life volcanologists to ensure "scientific accuracy" in terms of what the movie's titular volcano could and couldn't do. Yet it seems to me that lava has only two speeds -- it either explodes out of the ground and instantly obliterates everything in its path, or it slowly oozes down a mountain at such a snail's pace that only the tourists taking pictures run any risk of injury. Still, time and time again, 'Dante's Peak' sets up situations that turn lava into a killer with more malevolent intelligence than Hannibal Lecter.
Needless to say, all of this makes just about every scene in 'Dante's Peak' pretty hilarious. Just don't tell that to director Roger Donaldson ('The World's Fastest Indian,' 'Species,' 'The Getaway'), who plays it all absolutely straight. In fact, he invests even the lamest cliches in the script with a craftsman-like approach that continually balances the action with its "realistic" plot -- as if we cared. But to his credit, he does know how to stage action well, and always keeps the sense of geography between the film's characters, locations and big ol' Dante well-organized and coherent (which is surprisingly rare in many of these more modern disaster flicks, which usually just throw a bunch of bad CGI up on the screen and see what sticks). The film's effects, too, hold up quite well despite a subsequent decade of major advancements, thanks to Donaldson's reliance on largely practical effects rather than computer-generated wizardry.
I also enjoyed the earnest performances. Although she never quite hit the A-list as she should have following her success in the 'Terminator' flicks, Linda Hamilton always attacks her roles (even the silly ones like this) with gusto and intelligence. Brosnan, too, is particularly impressive in a role that you have to think he took simply to cash the check. Acting in big-budget, impersonal action films like 'Dante's Peak' is usually a thankless task, so that fact that we even care one iota about either Brosnan or Hamilton is perhaps as big an accomplishment as all those special effects.
Ultimately, however, the key selling point of 'Dante's Peak' is that it works purely and simply on the level of good disaster porn. Anyone going into a flick like this only cares about seeing stuff explode and burn and melt -- especially stupid characters with all but the words "victim" stamped to their forehead. The plot is only there to get us to care enough so that by the time of the big fire and brimstone at the show's climax, we've suspended our disbelief long enough to think any of this actually matters. Sure, such a feat amounts to little more than a cinematic hat trick, but 'Dante's Peak' pulls it off with great efficiency.
'Dante's Peak' is the latest catalog HD DVD release from Universal, and is part of a recent spate of older titles that the studio seems to have dusted off to fill its next-gen pipeline. That said, this one is probably among the best of Universal's recent output. 'Dante's Peak' is a good-looking movie, with a dark but rich visual style highlighted by some decent special effects.
This 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 transfer comes from a solid source. There are no obvious print flaws, and if grain is more prevalent than a modern film it's important to note that 'Dante's Peak' was made right before the CGI boom, when even non-special effects are often whitewashed in post. Hence we get a film-like look, with vivid if natural colors. Hues aren't incredibly impactful, but they are clean -- especially the reds which hold tight. Contrast offers some nice depth, but is not over-the-top, and blacks are also rock solid. Note, however, that the transfer can be quite dark, so brigher scenes are what delivers the biggest punch. Detail is quite nice even by modern standards, and only a bit of edge enhancement gives the transfer a digital cast. All things considered, 'Dante's Peak' is a solid four-star catalog effort.
At the time of its original release on standard-def DVD almost ten years ago, 'Dante's Peak' boasted what was considered state-of-the-art sound. The source elements have of course aged a bit in the interim, with the kind of intense discrete action common on today's mixes lacking here. But nicely bumped up to Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (at 1.5mbps), this HD DVD still delivers its fair share of sonic thrills.
'Dante's Peak' actually is more of a talky picture than you might think, hence the mix often feels a bit quiet and lacking in envelopment. That leaves it to the action scenes to pick up the slack, but thankfully they're pretty lively. Nature sounds and the studio-constructed lava/explosions are most prominent, with a nice overall heft to the rears and some near-seamless panning. The somewhat cheesy orchestral score by John Frizzell isn't as prominent in the mix as I would like, but there is enough expanse to the dynamic range to give a soaring quality to the highs and some real oomph to low bass. 'Dante's Peak' may not be demo quality by today's standards, but it will more than do.
When 'Dante's Peak' hit standard-def DVD in early 1998, it bore the distinction of being Universal's first-ever Collector's Edition release on the format, and I found watching these extras today a charmingly nostalgic experience.
"Getting Close to the Show: The Making of 'Dante's Peak'" is a rather lengthy 59-minute documentary covering the complete production. Sure, the making-of footage and especially the interviews have a cheesy look to them and the editing is kinda clunky, but without the snazzy, rapid-fire pacing of today's docs, there is an amicable, you-are-there kind of feel that's more intimate. Most of the major participants are featured, including Roger Donaldson, Pierce Brosnan Linda Hamilton and various tech folk, so this is a pretty solid overview for fans of the film.
A bit more dry is the audio commentary with Donaldson and production designer Dennis Washington. Concerned primarily with the "scientific accuracy" of the film and the effects, this fairly technical discussion includes some fascinating details about what real-life volcanoes are really capable of. I suppose I should be grateful that Donaldson didn't dig too deep into the "story" and characters (other than to give the usual props to the actors), as 'Dante's Peak' is about as deep as a lump of coal.
Rounding out the extras is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which like the rest of the video material is presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only.
Note that Universal has trimmed several extras that were originally included on the standard-def DVD. Gone on this HD DVD edition are some additional cast interviews and making-of footage, storyboard comparisons, and all of the text-based extras, which included production notes and some (now terribly outdated) cast and crew bios.
However inane it may be, 'Dante's Peak' is a fun movie that delivers enough action and meteoric melodrama to make it an easy recommend for disaster movie fans. As for this HD DVD release, while Universal clearly didn't put a great deal of effort into offering anything new, the video and audio hold up remarkably well. This is certainly one of the best of the studio's recent catalog releases, with the only real disappointment being the loss of several supplements from the previous DVD edition. All in all, though, not a bad deal, especially if you can get it at a discount.