Ethics & Public Policy Center

Dante’s Peak

Published in EPPC Online on February 1, 1997



Dante’s Peak by Roger Donaldson (written by Leslie Bohem) is a standard-formula disaster movie. The hero, Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) is a ruggedly handsome vulcanologist who (we learn over the opening credits) has lost his fiancée, a colleague, to an erupting volcano. Now he harbors his secret sorrow and treads a lone path through the world. He is a workaholic who is about to start an officially mandated vacation when he is called back by the boss, Paul Dreyfus (Charles Hallahan) to go and look at some suspicious seismic activity near a little town in Washington State called Dante’s Peak.

Wouldn’t you just know it? Dante’s Peak is that very day receiving an award from Money magazine as the second best town (under 20,000 population) to live in in the United States, and its mayor, a comely single mom and coffee shop owner called Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) is about to accept the award when Harry arrives in town. A band plays and baton twirlers twirl and everything looks all-American. But meanwhile, out of sight, a skinny dipping couple from Los Angeles who are sitting in a sulphur spring like a hot tub are parboiled by the increasingly active geothermal goings on, and Harry and Rachel, who is giving him the tour, find their bodies just as Rachel’s adorable little boy, Graham (Jeremy Foley) is about to jump in the pool himself.

Graham, by the way, has got to be retrieved from an abandoned mineshaft in which he and his friends, in spite of mom’s stern injunctions, are wont to play. This is something you might want to make a mental note of.

Harry is worried. He wants to put the town on alert. But Paul, who arrives with a team of fellow techies, upbraids him as alarmist. And who do you think is right, the old fat guy who wants to look out for property values and the interests of would-be investors or the young, handsome guy who is sure the mountain is going to blow? It is a question as easy to answer as that of what is going to happen to the greedy developer and the greedy helicopter pilot who keeps jacking up his prices. Or that of what happens when Paul announces that he and the team aren’t worried any more and are pulling out of town.

It is at about this time, too, that romance begins to blossom between Harry and Rachel. But first there is a town to save, as the belated alert only creates a panic. Even more alarming is the fact that Rachel’s adorable kids, having like their mother tried and failed to get her ex-mother in law, Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman), down from her cabin up on the mountain side, have taken it upon themselves to get in mom’s pickup truck and go get grandma. Rachel and Harry take off after them in his snazzy all-terrain vulcanologist’s vehicle. They arrive at roughly the same time, just as the cabin is engulfed in flames.

Do they make it? Do they save grandma? Do they save grandma’s dog Ruffy? Do they save themselves? Do they get married in the end? And how many hazards—like the lake that has turned to sulphuric acid, which they must cross in an aluminum boat, or the river they must ford which is over the truck’s engine, or the molten lava that sets their tires on fire—can be squeezed in before the inevitable conclusion? The suspense is not killing, but the special effects are slightly enjoyable. They are, after all, the only things that Hollywood is really good at anymore.

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