Dante’s Peak is great fun, but for all the wrong reasons. Here is a movie that cries out for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. The best part is that Universal spent $115 million on what they marketed as a scary disaster movie. Afraid not. Once it gets going (and it takes a good hour), Dante’s Peak has more belly-laughs per minute than The Nutty Professor.
The movie begins seriously enough. Intrepid geologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) and his sweetheart are driving away from an erupting volcano. A smoldering chunk of rock slices through the cab roof — thwack! — and the girlfriend will never need a hat again. Cut to four years later. Harry is now a workaholic trying to forget his grief; you can tell because he spends his spare time doing really intense push-ups.
Harry is summoned to investigate a possibly cranky volcano near the thriving town Dante’s Peak, which is declared “the second best place to live in America.” (Why not first-best? Oh, I don’t know — maybe the dormant-volcano thing.) The mayor (Linda Hamilton), a divorcee who seems to have adopted the kids from Jurassic Park, makes goo-goo eyes at Harry while he’s trying to explain that Dante’s Peak may soon become the second best place to find crispy corpses in America.
Volcanology must be tedious work — all that waiting around for the thing to blow — and I admire the integrity of director Roger Donaldson and writer Leslie Bohem, who keep Dante’s Peak defiantly boring for at least an hour. Just when we’re starting to feel like geologists watching rocks erode, the thing finally blows. Boy, does it blow. The volcanic effects, particularly a highway crumbling and cars falling like loose change, do manage to be fairly frightening. But then the movie accidentally takes a sharp detour into comedy, never to return.
Up to this point, Dante’s Peak has been a pale Xerox of Jaws (the town officials don’t want to scare away tourists and investors) and Twister (Harry has a team of volcano-chasers). But this movie, rather bravely I thought, declines to offer a plot motor like “Kill the shark” or “Get the balls into the tornado.” What we get instead is … Grandma and Ruffy the dog. I’ll try to explain. The little kids’ stubborn grandmother (Hamilton’s “ex-mother-in-law”) refuses to believe that the volcano is dangerous. Even when volcanic ash blackens the sky, she won’t leave her mountainside cabin. So our heroes go through Dante’s inferno to rescue this moron and her dog.
I won’t reveal much more; I don’t want to give away all the jokes. But the scene set in a boat in an acid lake is a comic masterpiece, ending in the funniest unintentional sight gag (involving poor Grandma, who apparently refuses to believe that acid is dangerous) I’ve seen in years. Not to mention Harry’s heartfelt, hilarious promise to take the kids deep-sea fishing when all this is over. Dante’s Peak is truly a special movie. I can’t recommend it, but it has my undying affection.