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  • Katy L. Wood

Movie Review: Dante's Peak

Dante’s Peak, which came out in 1997 is, as disaster films go, a pretty good one. It falls into some of the standard overwrought tropes, of course, such as the disaster resulting in the reestablishing of a heterosexual relationship, and some expected over-dramatics, but overall it paints a relatively realistic picture of a potential volcanic disaster hitting a small town in the Cascades. Even in the areas where it starts to stumble somewhat, it’s easy to understand the decisions being made by the creators and how and why they told the story the way they did.

This movie was written, filmed, and premiered towards the tailing end of a decade of pretty extreme volcanic incidents throughout the world. Mount Saint Helens is, obviously, directly referenced throughout the movie multiple times. It is in the same range as Dante’s Peak, it had blown its top about 10-12 years earlier (depending upon when exactly the movie itself is set), and the character of the grandmother seems lifted directly from the real-life figure of Harry Truman. But there are also a lot of indirect references to two major volcanic incidents in Columbia: the Armero Tragedy due to the Nevado Del Ruiz eruption on November 13th, 1985, which killed an estimated 23,000 people, and the Galeras Incident in January 1993 where six scientists and three tourists were killed (Bruce 2001). Little threads of both these eruptions can be found in Dante’s Peak. Harry, our leading man, lost his girlfriend to an eruption that heavily resembles what occurred in the Nevado Del Ruiz eruption, though based on timing her death would’ve been more in line with Galeras. In the movie, a scientist descends into the crater of the volcano only to get badly injured when a sudden earthquake makes the crater unstable and results in a rockfall, which is exactly what happened in the Galeras incident (Bruce 2001). Also in the movie, we see that the team of scientists seemingly aren’t getting any major readings, making them think the volcano is safe and not about to do anything. However, what they do not know is that the volcano only seems still because it is so blocked it can no longer move at all. Again, this is exactly what happened at Galeras; the scientists were lulled into a false sense of security and people died because of it (Bruce 2001).

The scientists in the movie, however, by and large did their best.[1] They were monitoring the situation and attempting to take measured actions based on what they knew. Panic is specifically referenced, but I think it was handled in a very logical and realistic way. Harry did go a little overboard in his initial reaction. He did not have enough data, or at least did not explain the data he did have well enough to the city council members, and when his boss stepped in he provided a much more measured response about what they were going to do and how they intended to do it. And while everyone panicking at the mere mention of a potential disaster is a myth, it is a myth that many people believe in so it makes sense that the city council would be worried about it. Then when the eruption actually starts, real panic does set in because people’s lives are immediately in danger.

When it comes time for the actual eruption, it is, overall, portrayed decently well. The Cascades range does erupt explosively, it does see pyroclastic flows, and it does see lahars. However, it does not have lava anything like the lava portrayed in the film, which is one of the biggest flaws in the movie overall. Cascades lava is thick and slow moving, almost the consistency of half-dry toothpaste. Lava that is thin and runny like portrayed in the movie is more commonly seen in volcanoes like those in Hawaii and Iceland (and even then, the lava in the movie is ridiculously fast moving). There is also the issue of none of the characters being all that affected by the amount of ash they are breathing in. I think we only see one person cover their face during the actual eruption—a member of the military who only uses a bandanna—and he uncovers it almost immediately to talk to other people. Both these things—the lava and the ash—are creative choices to move the film along and keep the audience engaged. Could other choices have potentially been made? Sure. There’s always other choices. But the writers made these ones and, in the end, the lava rushing around the cabin and down the mountain does create a great ticking clock to move the film along, and the magically non-choking ash enhances the realism of the situation without hiding the faces of the actors for the majority of the second half of the film.

Does the film get a little over dramatic at points? Sure. Grandma jumping into a lake of acid and then dying in the forest “on her mountain” does come across as maybe a little much. But, sometimes, that’s just how disaster goes. In the Galeras eruption a young soldier lost his hand when he stuck it out a doorway at just the wrong time and had his hand torn off by a volcanic bomb sailing out of the crater (Bruce 2001). Another man went to check the body of his colleague, picking him up only for his brain to fall out the back of his skull due to having part of his head cut off by flying debris (Bruce 2001). Both of these have, I think, a similar level of drama to what is portrayed in Dante’s Peak, and both of them are real. It all depends on how you frame the story.

In the end, Dante’s Peak is a good movie about the effects of a large-scale disaster on a small, unprepared town. It pulls heavily from real life and the known science at the time, mixing it all together with a set of somewhat cookie-cutter characters that still manage to be relatively charming, despite being so tightly tied to the same old tropes. The movie manages to both entertain and give an interesting insight into what a situation like this might be like for the people going through it.

[1] There is probably a whole different paper in the fact that the scientists are a very diverse group, while the townsfolk seem to be almost entirely straight, white, small town cutouts.



Bruce, Victoria. 2001. No Apparent Danger. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, INC.

1997. Dante's Peak. Directed by Roger Donaldson.


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