DVD re-releases have been de rigueur for serious collectors since the beginning of our involvement with this past time. Upon obtaining your first DVD undoubtedly you began to study your existing stacks of VHS tapes, searching for any favorites that translated into the more advanced new format. This is an immutable aspect of life for any of us that enjoy the benefits of the ever-progressing parade of technology, particularly with regards to forms of entertainment. Wax tubes capturing sound became vinyl record moving on through reel-to-reel tape onto cassettes and digitized on Compact Discs. Among the most recent progression affecting audio/video content, DVD morphed into Blu-ray settling, for the moment, on the ultra-high resolution afforded by 4KUHD. Frequently, studios will revisit previous titles even if there has not been a significant upgrade of its technical specifications. Typically, I rarely take notice of the studio announcements of these revisited movies, unless something catches my attention. A couple of months ago such criteria was met with the re-release of a relatively minor disaster movie, ‘Dante’s Peak’. The theatrical release occurred in 1997, with the DVD release in 2005 followed by the first Blu-ray in 2011. With a current MSRP around $10 even if the synopsis only mildly interests you, it is worth adding to your collection. Admittedly, it is not ranked among the upper tier of its genre. However, while this movie cannot qualify as a cult classic, it has achieved the requisite elements for consideration as a guilty pleasure. I can certify this categorization for a personal perspective. This film has been a sentimental favorite for me and my late wife. After watching it in a small theater in Brooklyn and repeatedly on television, we place a significant amount of wear on our VHS copy. Until this release, I never approached the viewing experience in the capacity of a critic. A substantial number of disaster flicks take place in large cities, allowing the greatest number of potential victims and increasing the viability of interrelated emotionally compelling stories. The absence of these factors is precisely what drew my wife and I to enjoying this film to such a degree as we did.
A substantial portion of the appeal of this film is attributed to the leading actors, Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. At the time of the theatrical release of this film, both had already appeared in franchises that would define their careers. Before their participation here, Ms. Hamilton became the iconic science fiction character of Sarah Conner in the ‘Terminator’ while Mr. Brosnan became the latest to assume the continuing mantle of James Bond. The characters they created were an entertaining mixture of incredibly resilient, resourceful and determined people mitigated by a sense of humanity making them eminently relatable to the viewers. Normalizing the larger than life character traits than most fans identifies then by, permits these talented actors to instill endearing traits and imperfections into their performances. One striking example handled through such subtle nuances that it is easy to overlook the full impact. As the volcanologist, Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), accepts the invitation by the town’s mayor, and barista, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), for a home cooked dinner, their preparations, particularly Rachel’s, is highly reminiscent of a young girl preparing for her very first date. The town of Dante’s Peak is on the verge of destruction under volcanic ash and lava, but the town’s official leader is worried about how she looks as she anxiously awaits the handsome, highly intelligent, limiting the potential for commitment, an out of towner. Rachel managed to take the emotional risk by asking him to dinner. It nicely demonstrated that even during unprecedented danger people remain people.
Harry is the lead investigating research scientist concerned with predictive volcanism, improving the time frame for predicting when a major eruption is imminent. The scene of them is working on another site, ostensibly testing the operation of their new remote control, robotic assistant. This is the use of time-tested cinematic technique and a variation of foreshadowing. Drawing the attention of the audience to the quirky robot is initially somewhat comical. That served to lighten the mood just before the first pangs of the oncoming disaster. Later, at a pivotal moment, the little proto-droid will be instrumental to saving the day. Fundamentally, the story is a simplistic ‘B’ grade disaster flick. Idyllic, a small town celebrating their recent inclusion in a ‘Best small town’ for its size, is shaken when Harry and his team barge in adamantly insisting the long-dormant titular volcano is about to experience a catastrophic eruption. The SO2 spewing into the air is turning the water into concentrated Sulfuric Acid. This is dramatically demonstrated and made extremely relatable by having Rachel’s ex-mother-in-law, Grandma Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman) is positioned to sacrifice herself to save her grandchildren, Graham (Jeremy Foley) and Lauren (Jamie Renée Smith), from certain death in a rapidly dissolving metal boat. That moment is melodramatic, on the level of a daytime soap opera, but, within the context of the narrative, it works exceedingly well. That moment of ultimate sacrifice, particularly by negatively painted character, become one of the critical emotional cornerstones of the movie.
The townsfolk are drawn generically along the lines of standard stereotypes defining a small town at the precipice of annihilation. This appears to be primarily a function of running time constraints. The backstory was reserved for Harry and his team. His boss, Paul Dreyfus (Charles Hallahan), is the prototypical gruff middle manager. He cares about the work and his people but maintains the ‘boss’ façade for the sake of doing the work as smoothly as possible. The creator of the robot, Stan (Tzi Ma), is the requisite Asian computer geek. Political correctness regarding ethic stereotypes was not as acute back in 1997. In the intervening two decades such scrutiny of casting decisions has become a divisive point of contention between the liberal and conservative factions of the country’s constantly changing sociopolitical landscape. To a lesser extent the next spot on the team is the young woman, Nancy (Arabella Field). As the secondary actress of the movie she must be attractive but not as pretty or dominant as the leading actress, Ms. Hamilton. The people of the town fill the role of the disaster movie equivalent of cannon fodder. The plot contrivance shifts the emotional onus to the Harry, the Wando family and the geologist. Typically, in a disaster scenario, there are numerous side stories following the plight of the affected citizens, first responders and the dedicated scientists that will save the world just minutes before the closing credits begin to roll. With a modest budget of $116,000,000, it is substantially less than the usual genre blockbuster. It was considered a financial success for the studio earning over $18.5 million on the opening weekend with a global box office near $180 million. Undoubtedly this main reason for the success was fan loyalty for James Bond and Sarah Conner. The halo effect for two of film’s most popular franchises was able to offset the lackluster critical reception as noted by the dismally low aggregate ranks by the top cumulative review site. It should be clear that although I do not feel this movie is among the great achievements of the genre, as a guilty pleasure it deserves much better than those sites would indicate. Not all movies have to be runaway hits. The most fundamental purpose of movies is to entertain, taking the viewers on an excursion of the imagination.