Dante's Peak - the first of this summer's pair of magma-spurting neo-disaster flicks - can easily be described as "Twister With Lava", so let's do so. However, a fair amount of fun is to be had from watching it go through its old-skool disaster-movie motions. Extremely traditional in its construction (the first two thirds are build-up, the last third boom), it's a well played, convincingly filmed entry in the current cycle - just not a ground-breaking one. Except, of course, in the literal sense.
Be warned - it's a cliché bonanza, with peculiar shades of Brass Eye. Our hero is "Good Science" guru Pierce Brosnan, who believes that there's going to be a life-threatening eruption, while "Bad Science" representative Charles Hallahan poo-poos the idea. Cue humdrum debates about whether they should evacuate the town or not. Then there's the man who plans to invest millions in Dante's Peak, but who'll junk the deal if he hears that the volcano's gonna blow. Not to mention the tell-tale signs that all's not well (bodies boiled alive in hot springs, brown drinking water, dead trees and squirrels littering the landscape). Add some courageous grannies, pesky kids and cute dogs just barking out to be rescued - and, of course, our hero's personal demon - and you have the sort of film that could have been made in 1973. Except then, of course, it wouldn't have looked as good.
For the first 50 minutes or so, Dante's Peak just about manages to hold it together as the various plot elements are brought into play. Director Donaldson (No Way Out, Species, The Getaway) isn't a distinctive film-maker, but he manages the human elements of his story well, while Brosnan (sleep-walking though his role as the smarmily charming, capable-but-human scientist hero) and Hamilton (still cute) just about hold the interest. But the tension builds very slowly indeed - many will insist too slowly - with the two main characters hogging screentime as their friendship slowly builds to love, and the emotionally scarred Brosnan gets himself a ready-made family worth fighting for.
What we're all waiting for, of course, is the slam-bang sfx finale. And when it comes, it's a doozy. Freeways collapse, windows shatter, buildings crumble, shockwaves crush whole pine forests, and fire, ash and burning rock rain down as the mountain shoots its sulphurous wad. The special effects are top-notch, giving the last half-hour an amusement-park-ride quality, as Pierce - mayor, kids, gran and slobbery pup in tow - takes flight from the rampaging red-hot lava by car, truck and boat. Some of this stuff is very neat indeed, but much of it strains credibility to breaking point, not least Brosnan's 4x4 (it drives over a river of lava, outruns a volcanic shockwave and ploughs through a river almost completely underwater). The result is entertaining, completely unbelievable spectacle.
Easily on a par with Twister, Dante's Peak is a giddy action adventure that's slow to get going, concentrates a bit too much on the human drama, but certainly delivers the explosive goods when push comes to fire-shovel. More attention to the script (perhaps subverting some of those disaster flick clichés) would have helped no end, particularly in regard to the dialogue. ("I haven't been with anybody for a long time. But it's like riding a bicycle - you never forget," says Brosnan, admirably straight-faced.) Presumably this sort of thing is an inevitable consequence of rushing your film from concept to completion as fast as Dante's Peak's producers did. But effects freaks will have no problem with the movie at all, and particular mention must go to the great THX sound, which picks you up by your bleeding ears and dumps you at the heart of the volcano.
"Twister With Lava" is the predicable but apt soundbite. This is a by-the-numbers '70s disaster movie retread, with capable-but-flat leads (Brosnan and Hamilton) and a lengthy 50-minute wait for anything exciting to happen. That the eventual trashing of sleepy Dante's Peak (pop: 8,000 and falling) is so exciting saves it.