Best Disaster Porn: Dante's Peak

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Dr. Henry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) is a volcanologist who has been sent to small-town Dante’s Peak, recently named by Money Magazine as the (second) most desirable place to live in the US, but their dormant volcano just might be waking up. He and the town’s mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) want to keep the townspeople safe, but opposition to evacuation by the town council and Henry’s boss may be putting them all in danger.

Legit science went into this film

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No “hacking the planet’s core” shenanigans in Dante’s Peak. In this film, hot springs around the volcano get too hot for skinny dipping. Trees and animals are dying from excess CO2 coming out of the ground. The mountain lake’s pH is too acidic.

The filmmakers did take some liberties with fast-moving lava and an overly acidic lake, but volcanologists point to this film as the most accurate one out of Hollywood.

Well-earned, well-built tension

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All the above-mentioned precursors to an eruption are used to full effect. They don’t just show up only to be ignored or overlooked by idiotic characters. A young couple are in the right place at the wrong time when they decide to go skinny-dipping in the hot springs (tension!). They’re later found by Dalton, Wando, and holy shit her kids! Not only are we uncertain for a few moments if anyone will notice the boiled bodies in the steam before Wando’s son jumps in, but the daughter’s traumatic scream when she doesn't avert her eyes quickly enough adds more tension. Those same kids also find dead squirrels (tension!), and grandma confirms that squirrels have been “dropping like that all over the mountain.” Tension!!! (And that’s just one sequence of the film!)

three-dimensional characters

Dalton’s back story is a bit duct-taped together, but his history with dangerous volcanoes is important to establish, and not only do the writers take the time to do so, but they also make sure to revisit it. The reason Dalton's boss gets upset with him when the town council is brought into the loop prematurely is perfectly reasonable and based on the boss character's previous experiences. Never does Dalton’s boss speak unprofessionally, and when he turns out to be wrong at the end (because you know that shit’s gonna blow), the guy cops to it and apologizes.

Rachel Wando isn’t an exemplary mayor. She balances her time between her kids, her mayoral duties, and running a store, so it’s understandable that her kids sometimes come along with her on her mayoral duties, that she’s sometimes late to functions, and that she struggles to remember the name of the Money Magazine rep who has come to give her town the award. However, she listens (!!!) to the advice of the scientist and informs the town council of their mountain’s hiccups. She doesn't want to sabotage a potential investment that would bring the town jobs, but also wants to keep the townspeople safe. Even better, she doesn’t jump on Dalton when his boss shuts down the idea of alerting the town, or when the rest of the town council is snide to her for calling a meeting that could’ve started bad rumors. And Dalton apologizes for “ruining her re-election chances” because he’s not completely self-absorbed. What wonderful characters! They react to their experiences and make decisions based on them!

The Script Pulls its Weight

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Every scene has purpose, often more than one. The writer promises something to the viewer and later delivers it. Want to know why we care about this yellow box? You’ll find out! Want to know what’ll happen to that lake with the low pH? You’ll find out! Want to know if we’ll see that mine shaft again where Wando finds her rebellious son playing? You will!

GOOD dialogue

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Dalton and Wando have just met, and she's driving him up the mountain road so he can do some basic tests for common precursors to eruption. They stop at one point to let her kids go swimming at the hot springs (we recall the young, boiled couple and begin to dread), but before joining them, Dalton grabs a random rock from the side of the road and stares at it.

Wando: “Hm. A man who stares at a rock must have a lot on his mind." (pauses, then laughs) "Or nothing!”

Fucking hilarious. I giggled.

Later, Wando and Dalton have spent more time together while he continues to monitor the mountain. She invites him to dinner (for good reasons, not stupid ones) and afterward they have a natural-sounding conversation about why Dalton hasn’t married (she backs off when he doesn’t seem to want to talk) and about why the father of Wando’s kids is absent. The previous tension established between Wando and her mother-in-law Ruth is reinforced when she says:

Wando: “I don’t think she’d admit it, but I don’t even think Ruth knows where he is.”

Great line! Establishes so much emotion, and is an efficient explanation for the absent father as well as the tension between Wando and the grandma.

Good romance

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Dalton and Wando are both older, wiser, and nursing some wounds. They’re both competent. They both care. They’re also both hot. I mean, what’s better than James Bond flirting with Sarah Connor?

Irony

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It’s ironic that a town named (Second) Best Place to Live in the US is about to have a volcano vomit all over it. The audience knows the town has no chance of ever moving up to first place. The film hammers hard on that irony, and it’s so sweet.

Dalton is a badass

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Shit starts to get real, but Dalton is prepared. He rescues people like, ten fucking times. Did people panic and try to trample some poor guy? Dalton’s gonna grab that dude up. Need to make it across the river because of traffic? Dalton’s gonna drive right into it and up the other side. The engine has a fucking snorkel, guys!

Dante’s Peak isn’t perfect, but even its imperfections make you want to re-watch the film.

Silly use of the Wilhelm scream

If you don’t immediately know what the Wilheim scream is, I can still guarantee you’ve heard it. It’s been sampled in over 200 films. Most notably, it’s been used in all of the Star Wars films, all of the Lord of the Rings films, and all of the Indiana Jones films. Unfortunately, it’s distinctly comedic and really undercuts a sad moment.

The occasional over-dramatic or cheesy line

Dalton: My 9th grade science teacher always said that if you put a frog in boiling hot water, it would jump out. But put it in cold water, and heat it up gradually, it would slowly boil to death.
Nancy: What’s that, Harry? Your recipe for frog soup?
Dalton: It’s my recipe for disaster.

Certain killjoys transcribed that line as “It’s my recipe…for DISASTER!” but that’s not how he says it. It’s all in the delivery, folks.

Another example, though: Dalton and Wando are about to get it on, but Wando is nervous.

Wando: I haven’t been with anybody in a long time.
Dalton: Same here. Do you know what they say? It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you’ve learned…you never forget.

Oh God, it’s so dorky!

Many People die, but they save the dog?

First off, the dog is entirely unnecessary. Secondly, if you’re going to kill off a couple of characters, don’t make their deaths seem silly by emphasizing the survival of a pet.

Despite these flaws, there's two very good reasons to watch Dante’s Peak.

DISASTER PORN

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Great special effects. We get to see a pyroclastic cloud, for crying out loud!

BEFORE AND AFTER SHOTS

Stick around after the camera pans away from the rescue of our characters, and take a look at the shape of the mountain after its eruption. HOLY SHIT, YOU GUYS.

To entice you to watch to the end, I’m only including a before shot.

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