Film * Rodger Donaldson * What If Volcanoes, Though? * 1997
Dante’s Peak is a film that speaks to me. I have a large compendium of dumb stuff I enjoy, and stupid disaster movies are pretty high on that list, slotted right between Lil’ Jon and The Rock. This particular dumb movie came out the year I graduated high school, which ugh, but also coincided with the one time in my life I was watching a lot of movies. Two of my favorites at the time were the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies (which are somewhere around DOOM and weird-flavored potato chips on my idiot-list) and the Terminator movies. Now here comes a disaster flick starring actors from both of those things and – and! It is set in the Pacific Northwest. Look, the best thing about disaster movies are watching familiar things get blown up real good. That’s why they’re all set in New York or London or whatever. Back then, I had been living in California for a long time, but I was from the Northwest. I had a family and a history there, and now here comes this movie basically about Mt. St. Helens and I was downright giddy to see the thing.
Was I disappointed? Pff, you wish. Dante’s Peak hits all the right disaster movie notes in all the right places and is therefore great and everyone should love it. The setup is ideal: you have a sleepy town full of quirky-yet-cardboard characters milling around. You’ve got a brilliant scientist with a tragic history who is frustrated that stupid jerk science won’t justify his obviously superior intuition. You’ve got a strong and sturdy lady-mayor (who also owns a trendy Northwest coffee-shop because that was just starting to be a thing) who is totes single and just so over her ex. Also she has a couple precocious kids who get into hijinks. What else? Oh right, the silly-billy science team who are there to perform broad acts of science (which is not as accurate as Pierce Brosnan’s gut, of course) and provide comic relief, because we all know scientists are unsociable goofballs that are in these movies to amuse us. Oh, there’s a dog. I don’t remember if it dies or not. Probably not.
Then of course you’ve got the actual star of the movie, the volcano. Dante’s Peak is not a real volcano. I’m not sure what the advantage of using a fictional mountain to rain havoc upon the unwitting citizens of the PNW is, but if I had to guess it’s because “Dante’s Peak” is a way better name than any of the actual volcanoes in the Cascades. Turns out boring white explorers gave boring white names to landmarks. All our mountains are named after eighteenth and nineteenth century British aristocrats nobody remembers, and it’s lame. Unless they’re just given super generic names, like the three closest to me.
“Hey, there’s three mountains here, what should we call them?”
“Man, I don’t care, just lump them all together and let’s go home, this place is cold.”
“The Three Sisters!”
“Great, whatever, let’s go.”
“The one in the north is North Sister. The one in the south is South Sister.”
“Oh my god shut up. If I ask about the other one can we leave?”
“The one in the middle? You’ll never guess. Guess.”
“I guess I’m leaving you here to be eaten by bears.”
“No! I’m calling it Middle Sister. Because it’s in the middle.”
“I hope everyone here hates those names as much as I hate you right now.”
“And the one with the broken top? I’m calling it Broken Top!”
“You’re the worst and nobody likes you. I’m not telling you this as your friend, I just want you to suffer as I have suffered.”
…and so on in that fashion until all our landmarks have terrible names. It’s a lake, in a crater. Crater Lake! We did it! Anyway, my point is that Dante’s Peak is significantly cooler than the actual names. Not as cool as the names my wife and I use, of course: Pointy, Stumpy, Lumpy, Bumpy, and Humpy. Sometimes I mix the last three up, but still. What the hell was I talking about? Oh right, the movie. I’m of the opinion that you can’t actually spoil a disaster movie, but it’s time for the break anyway.
Hey guys, the volcano erupts in spectacular fashion and wrecks everybody’s day all up, vindicating the heroic, superior scientist and making the nay-sayers look like dorks! The end. Rewatching this movie twenty real years after watching it in the theater (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, linear time is a menace and should be destroyed), I think I appreciate this nonsense even more. Part of the reason is that I work for the Forest Service now, on the flanks of (or literally inside of) an actual dormant volcano, and a big part of my job is to help visitors appreciate what is directly under their feet. Dante’s Peak gets a lot of the actual science wrong, because it is a disaster movie and that’s how these things work. Like, Forest Service vehicles don’t actually have magic, lava-resistant tires, as much as I wish they did. Whatever, though, because as dumb as this movie is, it reminds people of the cataclysmic power of the planet. That’s what I do at work, except without the iffy science.
A massive volcanic eruption is certainly one of the most powerful, cataclysmic events in nature. If you doubt this, take a trip to Mt. St. Helens one of these days. Thirty-seven years later and the area is still a smoldering wasteland. The thing is, though, even such a powerful eruption didn’t cause the widespread, apocalyptic damage that other disasters manage. This is because, in the United States at least, our volcanoes are out of the way. They’re stationary. We don’t build big cities at their feet. Even the fictional town of Dante’s Peak is way larger than most of the tiny mountain towns that appear at the base of the real mountains. Places like Cougar, WA or Rhododendron, OR are barely places. When Mt. St. Helens erupted, fewer than 60 people died as a result because of the isolation of the mountain itself. The eruption of Dante’s Peak, then, is less an apocalypse than a minor inconvenience, at least on a national scale.
That said, there is a subtle undercurrent to the story of Dante’s Peak that is easily lost in movie featuring acid lakes and lava-defying Forest Service vehicles. In the build-up to the main event, which is to say the mountain blowing up real good, the movie gives us a quick sketch of a small town in the Northwest. On the surface, it looks like the typical middle-America Ohio town popularized by pretty much all of American media, ever. Quaint people doing quaint things in their quaint town. Sometimes they squabble but really everyone has a heart of gold and are clearly superior to filthy city people. That’s the cliché, anyway. Dante’s Peak manages to subvert that, but only a little bit, and then the film totally forgets about it by the end. A volcano did erupt, after all.
The small town of Dante’s Peak is a town experiencing a resurgence. It is implied that before Sarah Connor took over, the town was like many others across the Northwest in the mid-nineties, which is to say, depressed. The vast majority of small towns across Washington and Oregon were founded as centers of logging. Toward the end of the 20th century, this industry – like those in coal and manufacturing elsewhere in the country – began its long decline. Logging became less profitable, workers were laid off, mills were closed. Obviously, there are many complicated reasons for this. Increased efficiency using the product, fewer things are made from wood, increased competition from a world market, all kinds of things contribute to the loss of logging jobs. However, the industry and many of the locals who were affected by the downturn found a much easier scapegoat: the spotted owl. Look, I don’t want to get into a whole thing here, the point is that in the wake of a shrinking lumber market, small towns in the region started to shrink and become just the saddest places. People are familiar with places like Flint, Michigan but I would have to think Aberdeen or Chehalis, Washington are right up there on the list of depressed, horrible towns in this country.
Dante’s Peak is depicted to be such a town experiencing an uptick in fortune. The mayor runs a trendy coffee shop. A Business Man is in town to open a Business, which is exciting to a town which is likely suffering from chronic unemployment. The difference between Dante’s Peak and like, Tenino, Washington is that Dante’s Peak seems to be getting its act together. There’s hope here. In the film this hope is rooted in the aforementioned Business Man, but is more clearly seen in Mayor Connor (no, I can’t be bothered to look up the character’s actual name. That’s Sarah Connor, I don’t care). It’s her coffee shop, on a street catered towards tourists, because guess what? When one industry leaves, it needs to be replaced. If you live in Winlock, Washington, you’re screwed, because there’s nothing for tourists to look at other than a large egg. If you’re in Newberg, Oregon, you’re better off because rich white people like wine and feeling superior to hillbillies. And Newberg’s got both! Dante’s Peak has a picturesque mountain, and is therefore positioned to make an economic recovery.
Now I’m not sure what the movie is trying to say about all of this, because obviously the town of Dante’s Peak fails. The town doesn’t fail because the economic model is flawed, of course. It fails because a mountain ker-plodes. I think the conclusion I’m forced to draw is that Dante’s Peak is a bleak, nihilistic commentary on small town America. The lesson here is don’t try because even if you succeed in eclipsing meth production as your primary industry, nature will show up and wipe you out anyway. Everyone dies, there’s no reason for anything, your life is meaningless.
Either that, or Dante’s Peak is an incredibly silly, absurdly fun wisp of a movie that nobody should think much about thirty seconds after having watched it. Either way it’s time well spent.