Dante's Peak, Volcano

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Rating Symbols

HBS

Hot Babe Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this. Hollywood is now capable of dealing with a woman scientist. Someday they will be capable of portraying a plain, middle-aged or overweight woman scientist.

HUNK

Hunk Scientist. Linus Pauling never looked like this, either. Stephen Hawking may be a great heroic role model, but good looks sell tickets.

HCIM

High Caloric-Intake Monster. Large animals eat a smaller fraction of their body weight each day than small ones, a manifestation of surface to volume ratio. Hollywood critters, on the other hand, eat like shrews.

PAPWL

Pompous Ass who Pays With His Life. The pig-headed boss or political figure who refuses for selfish reasons to listen to warnings and gets killed. Occasionally it really happens; the governor of Martinique refused to evacuate when Mont Pelee began erupting 1902, and died in the resulting catastrophe. So did 30,000 innocent people.

SK

Superfluous Kids. Kids (generally repugnant) who serve no real dramatic purpose except to generate audience sympathy. I root for the monsters, especially when the kids do something stupid after they've been told not to.

CCHNC

Cookie Crumbs Have No Calories. And large objects (like asteroids) cease to exist once they're broken up.


Dante's Peak (HUNK, PAPWL, SK)

Volcanic ejecta is simply falling rocks. A big piece may be able to punch through a car roof but they don't hit like artillery shells as shown in the opening sequence.

The depictions of a pyroclastic flow and a mudflow are quite accurate, but the very fluid lava flow is inconsistent with the explosiveness of the eruption. Could you drive over a still-hot lava flow? Maybe. Consider the alternatives. I was skeptical of being able to drive just on bare rims until I saw it being done in a video of police chases. Would driving into a mine tunnel protect you from a pyroclastic flow? Maybe, maybe not. Again, consider the alternatives.

This film obviously draws on a Nova program, In the Path of a Killer Volcano, a superb video with outstanding footage of volcanic phenomena. Even some of the dialog in Dante's Peak is similar to the video. But in the video, about the great 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, the scientists agonize about each step of the volcano alert process. In Dante's Peak, Pierce Brosnan spends a few hours around a peak with nowhere near the activity level of Mount Pinatubo and then declares at a town meeting that people need to evacuate.

This movie features two PAPWL's: Brosnan's boss and the heroine's mother-in-law, who refuses to leave her cabin on the mountain. This is obviously modeled on Harry Truman at Mount Saint Helens, the only difference being that Harry Truman had enough redeeming qualities that we cared whether or not he survived.

The worst blooper in the film occurs when the characters flee across a mountain lake that has been turned to acid by volcanic emissions. The lake wouldn't become that acidic that quickly, and in any case the acid would not act so quickly (acid never acts as quickly as it does in the movies). And the acid is shown dissolving an aluminum boat! The main acidic component in volcanic gases is sulfur, and sulfuric acid attacks aluminum only slowly. Hydrochloric acid, which is also present in volcanic gases, attacks aluminum much more quickly, but it's very unlikely that there would be enough of it in the lake to do serious damage.

I saw this film again recently on video and was struck by how slowly the first half of the film plods. You'd think it was about glaciers instead of volcanoes.

Volcano (HBS, PAPLW)

Okay, you have two female scientists, one a drop-dead vivacious blonde, the other plain, nerdy and with glasses. Which one dies? Duh.

This film didn't get as favorable reviews as Dante's Peak but I liked it better. The scenario of a new volcano popping up under Los Angeles is unlikely but not impossible (it's happened elsewhere) and in contrast to Dante's Peak, the people in this film are trying to do something rather than simply running for their lives. I narrowly avoid giving this an SK rating because the child in the movie actually matures from a panicky brat to someone who pitches in and helps.

The lava is unusually runny and resistant to cooling. Real lava flows generally don't advance at a fast walk over level ground. Nobody knows what fluid lava would do in a city full of man-made tunnels, but there's a big difference between flowing through a lava tube where the surroundings are still hot and flowing through a sewer or subway where the walls are cold. Also, when the lava finally bursts out of the ground after flowing several miles through tunnels, it sends up a lava fountain 50 meters high. That would only be possible if the lava had dropped at least 50 meters flowing through the tunnel, which isn't consistent with the flat terrain in the movie. Also, why didn't the lava simply spurt out the subway entrances?

Tommy Lee Jones: whether he's a hero (here), a hero/villain (The Fugitive) or a villain (Under Siege), he's one of those performers who can make almost any movie worth a ticket.


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Created 5 February 1998, Last Update 02 June 2010

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