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'Dante's Peak': Lava Among the Ruins

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 7, 1997

After 7,000 years of acid buildup, Mother Nature has a Maalox Moment. The old crone, er cone, grumbles in warning, heaves a mighty molten belch and, when she can hold it no longer, spews all over the teeny title town of "Dante's Peak."

The first in a new cycle of big-budget disaster flicks, this lulu of a lava-spewer matches "Twister" in special effects -- except, alas, there are no flying cows. While the plot is thin and there's little action till the big blow some 60 minutes into the film, a volcano offers a greater variety of thrills than your basic cyclone ever could.

In addition to a spectacular display of fireworks and brimstone, a Hollywood blast of this magnitude comes with earthquakes, mudslides, flash floods, rivers of liquefied rock, clouds of sulfurous steam and bursting lava bombs. All of this is a pain in the ash for the heroic Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan), a government volcanologist sent to investigate seismic activity near the long-dormant peak.

Harry, whose fiance died as they fled a Colombian eruption, is aided in his research by the town's comely mayor, Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), who looks on with interest as he examines rocks, sniffs the air and samples the water. Everything seems normal when, to their horror, they discover a couple of backpackers parboiled in a local hot spring -- proof along with lots of dead squirrels and withered evergreen trees that an eruption is imminent.

But nobody wants to hear the bad news, and selfish officials pooh-pooh the idea of an alert because it might jinx a big investment deal.

While the pressure builds and the magma bubbles, Harry and Rachel, a single mother of two, get to know each other better over dinner. Their eyes meet, their lips soon follow, and the earth moves. Unfortunately, this is quite literally the case and the couple hurry off to town to orchestrate an orderly evacuation. Though they repeatedly urge the villagers to remain calm, mass hysteria ensues as the volcano goes into convulsions.

Meanwhile, Harry and Rachel return for her children only to find that they have gone farther up the peak to rescue their grandmother (Elizabeth Hoffman), a sour old bat who adamantly refuses to leave her mountain.

She is so crotchety that the movie would have been better if the kids had gone off to save her little dog, Scruffy. And while we're filling up director Roger Donaldson's suggestion box, why not cast the diva of disaster flicks, Shelley Winters, in Granny's role, thereby linking the picture to the cataclysmic epics of the '70s. A more knowing approach to the old-fashioned tale might have made the cliched narrative and laughable dialogue seem intentional.

In any case, the explosions have only just begun -- "Dante's Peak" beat both Fox's "Volcano" and ABC's TV movie "Volcano: Fire on the Mountain" into the marketplace. "Volcano" bubbles up this spring at movie theaters and the ABC adventure airs Feb. 23. These efforts, however, represent only the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned for "Titanic," "Flood," "Jurassic Park II" and other highly entertaining tales of mass destruction.

Dante's Peak is rated PG-13 for a skinny-dipping scene and nasty-looking injuries.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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