Plot, shnott, blow something up
I'm making myself rethink Dante's Peak somewhat in light of its genre - the disaster movie. Which is to say, I didn't find much that interesting about it, yet it is interesting think about why.
The disaster movie has troubles anyway from the very nature of what the films has to be - showing people in jeopardy from some natural or unnatural menace. We know things are going to go bad, that people will die, and the plot only has a narrow degree of freedom in how it can surprise us. Hence, the strength of the film relates more to its premise and special effects than more rudimentary things as acting and plot.
As a case in point, consider Dante's Peak. Visiting male vulcanologist meets local female official underneath a long-dormant but stirring volcano. One of the official's kids gets chastised very early for hanging out in a mine. I don't have to think hard to see that these two fall in love, and we end up revisiting that mine by the end of the movie. Admittedly, I thought the kid would wander off and have to be rescued from the mine, but the movie didn't stoop to that, fortunately - though we do indeed have to rescue those kids eventually.
Most films would be crushed by this blatant obviousness. Can this kind of genre film survive that? Is it my own foible that I muse about this when I should be tantalized by the spectacular visuals? The problem there is that we don't have those spectacular visuals yet - since the movie has the pretense of setting up what's to follow, it must be valid to criticize that setup.
Moving on, our vulcanologist is convinced, as are we by the less-than-subtle hints the film drops us, that this thing's going to blow. He is met however by resistance on several fronts - his boss and town council members - who don't want to hurt the local economy, scare people, or just look silly if they turn out to be wrong.
Is it a well-ingrained disaster movie rule that the stupid people have to die? Any character's fate seems tied to how we've been told to feel about that character. Somehow this must be the universe's way to get back at those who don't fall into the single-viewpoint black-and-white world of the writer.
The movie goes through a fair amount of effort to show scientists measuring the volcano up one side and down the other, enough so that some real research was probably done to keep it accurate. Yet, it's a disappointment that, in the end, it doesn't really matter for much. It's as if, since our protagonist is a scientist, we ought to have some science in there, huh? And the scientists don't so much speak to each other but to the audience, as best shown by the glee one member of the team has when declaring an ordinary instrument will perform its intended function as if surprised his leg will bend at the knee.
Eventually, the volcano blows (big surprise) and, if you haven't been too disillusioned by the setup, it becomes interesting to watch. The special effects are reasonably well done, and the tension is sustained for the remainder. In other words, it becomes the disaster movie we were all waiting for.
The real problem is the pretense that the story needed to be carved out. It's like watching the running of the bulls in Pamplona between fifteen minute interstitials telling us each gored participant's education and favorite breakfast cereal.
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