With Dante’s Peak, the 1997 summer movie season — which, in case you didn’t know it, is now officially under way — kicks off with a bang and a whimper. The bang arrives late, when the title volcano, a pristine snowcapped mountain perched next to a small town in the Pacific Northwest, finally shoots its wad, erupting with the definitive catastrophic boom of a nuclear blast. Fir trees bend forward like so many thistles, houses are buried beneath an avalanche of rock and ash, and our heroes, who include Pierce Brosnan as a superstar geologist and Linda Hamilton as the resident mayor/cappuccino merchant/divorced mom, rocket their Jeep into a mine, barely escaping live burial. This, of course, is the moment we’ve been waiting for — the money shot of doom. In disaster films, ”apocalpyse now” is no metaphysical fancy. It’s a demand made by the audience, sort of like ”I want my MTV.”
Up until that fatal blast, the volcano in Dante’s Peak provides far more routine photogenic terrors. The ash comes down like gray snow, the quaking earth knocks a highway off course (nice effect), and the lava flows through somebody’s living room, a rolling carpet of molten death. Not your everyday calamity, to be sure, but after all the sharks, tornadoes, dinosaurs, and hostile alien spaceships we’ve sat through, this stuff just seems massively inconvenient, like the ultimate flooded basement. Sometimes, there’s a thin line between Armageddon and the Weather Channel. It hardly helps, of course, to have no characters to root for. What is it about Pierce Brosnan? He’s got dimples, grace, charm; he’s not a movie star, exactly — he looks as if he should be hosting something. In Dante’s Peak, he hosts a flabby rehash of Jaws and Twister, featuring endless humdrum debates about whether the town should be evacuated. We’ve been there, thank you. On to the next apocalypse!