(Welcome to Seeing Double, a series where two strangely similar films released around the same time are put head-to-head. This time, we take a timely look at two movies that turn volcanic activity into action/adventure romps for the big screen.)

Volcanic eruptions don’t typically get the kind of attention in the US that hurricanes, tornadoes, and sinkholes do as they’re understandably infrequent here in the states. We had Mount St. Helens back in 1980 and then… nothing. The Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s big island started spewing lava from newly created fissures in the earth last year, though, destroying homes and roads and causing thousands of people to be evacuated. Thankfully, no one lost their lives to the red-hot rumblings this time, but Hollywood likes their gassy earth tales a bit deadlier.

1997 saw two big studio movies open less than three months apart focused on volcanic tales with far deadlier outcomes. Dante’s Peak was first out of the gate on February 7 and actually focused on a Mount St. Helens-type scenario, while Volcano opened on April 25 and moved the action to the unlikely locale of downtown Los Angeles. Both are big-ish, effects-driven disaster pics with remarkably similar character dynamics, but for all their similarities, they’re wholly different beasts.

Keep reading for a head-to-head face-off between Dante’s Peak and Volcano.

The Story

In Dante’s Peak, a vulcanologist who lost his lady friend to a violent eruption four years prior is called to the Pacific Northwest to investigate earthy rumblings near the small Washington town of the title. His arrival coincides with the town celebrating being named the second most desirable place to live in the US, and the accolade comes with some big corporate interests as well. The town’s booming, and no one wants to hear nonsense talk of an impending disaster. So yeah, it’s Jaws with a mountain-sized shark. Harry’s warnings aren’t heeded by townspeople or his own boss, and soon ash, rock, and boiling water start devouring everything and everyone in their path. Can Harry and the mayor save lives and find love along the way?

Volcano is set in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles with a population wholly unprepared for volcanic activity. Earthquakes maybe, but they have no time in their day for hot lava. After an underground tease of what’s to come kills seven utility workers, the head of L.A.’s Office of Emergency Management begins to suspect something bigger is on the horizon. He teams up with a geologist who suggests the culprit is a volcano, and while she’s laughed at initially she’s quickly proven correct. A second quake cracks the earth even further and soon molten lava – and high-flying lava bombs – are turning downtown L.A. into a disaster zone.

Advantage: Jaws riffs are typically good fun, but while Dante’s Peak is just that, it means the story is a familiar one. Volcano, by contrast, mixes things up by bringing a volcanic disaster somewhere wholly unexpected. To that point, while an exploding mountain offers the possibility of exciting destruction seeing a modern, well-known city destroyed in detail by lava is undeniably more promising. And lastly, while Volcano‘s action kicks in almost immediately, Dante’s Peak has us waiting nearly an hour before the damn thing blows and the disaster picture begins. So yeah, Volcano wins this round.

The Filmmakers

Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, Species) helmed Dante’s Peak, and while the past decade has seen him fall into smaller scale releases (Seeking Justice, McLaren), he was in his prime here. Writer Leslie Bohem has a somewhat less distinguished career, but having previously written Daylight for Sylvester Stallone, he was firmly in the “mid-sized disaster epic” state of mind. He earns an extra point here for sneaking in the preemptive strike against Volcano with the line, “Sure beats the hell out of LA.” Holding it all together, meanwhile, is uber-producer Gale Anne Hurd. She’s shepherded many of your favorite genre films into theaters including The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Alien Nation, Tremors, and more, and her hands in this mix boded well.

Volcano‘s behind the scenes talents were a bit less notable despite director Mick Jackson having made two terrific films (L.A. Story, The Bodyguard) prior to 1997. Writer Billy Ray has since gone on to deliver smart scripts like Shattered Glass, Flightplan, and Captain Phillips, but at the time, his highpoint was his debut thriller Color of Night. Yes, the Bruce-Willis-shows-his-dong movie. Similarly, producers Andrew Z. Davis and Neal H. Moritz went on to deliver some massive films, but they came into Volcano with resumes highlighted by the likes of Warren Beatty’s Love Story and Juice.

Advantage: I’m unapologetic in my love for The Bodyguard, but Dante’s Peak takes this category. Donaldson just brought more to the table than Jackson, and with Hurd watching over things the production felt like a far safer bet. It also has the smarter script that affords more time to its characters, more thrilling set-pieces, and a scene of self-sacrifice that lands with truly effective emotion. (I say “smarter script,” but yes, it does also include a scene where our hero tries to drive across lava.) Point Dante’s Peak.

The Cast

Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton headline Dante’s Peak, and both were already veterans of big action franchise films. Brosnan even had a James Bond film (Tomorrow Never Dies) open this same year. They both balance the serious nature of the drama with the heightened fun of the disaster picture premise. The highlight of the supporting cast? John Carpenter favorites Peter Jason and Charles Hallahan.

Volcano‘s top stars didn’t shine as bright back in 1997 (and one of them only grew dimmer since), but they made for a pretty compelling and atypical pair at the time. Tommy Lee Jones brings his cantankerous self to the role, and while it seems beyond his wheelhouse, it’s clear he’s embracing the action-hero environment with energy and a clear sense of humor. He’s fighting lava in L.A. and he’s loving every minute of it. Anne Heche was heading into her career highpoint in ’97, and while it wouldn’t last long, she proves herself more than capable of delivering charismatic and capable lead role. The supporting cast is every bit as solid with smaller turns from Don Cheadle, Gaby Hoffman, John Carroll Lynch, John Corbett, Keith David, Richard Schiff, Michael Rispoli, and the terrific Jacqueline Kim.

Advantage: All due respect to Jason and Hallahan, but the winner here is Volcano, easy.

Critical Reception

Neither critics nor audiences were all that enamored by Dante’s Peak. Per Rotten Tomatoes, the film sits at a surprising 24% with many reviewers enjoying the big disaster sequences while finding the script and character-work simply disastrous. As mentioned above, the peak doesn’t blow until about an hour in leaving a lot of hot air turning people off for far too long. The audience score is barely better at 38%.

Volcano had the opposite problem with critics liking it more than audiences. Its RT score reached 50% – half of the critics really dig a cranky Tommy Lee Jones! – while the audience number sits at 31%.

Advantage: Rotten Tomatoes may be less of a science than vulcanology, but numbers don’t lie. Volcano wins this round.

Budget and Box-Office

Dante’s Peak had a healthy budget of $116 million, which, while quaint these days for a supposed blockbuster, was no small potatoes in ’97. It’s all on the screen with some (mostly) strong digital work accompanied by a healthy dose of practical stunt/destruction action. Unfortunately, its box-office capped out at $178 million worldwide, meaning after marketing costs were taken into account the film narrowly crept into the black.

Volcano cost a little bit less (relatively speaking) at $90 million before marketing, but while that still feels like a lot for what we get on the screen, it also wasn’t apparently enough. The film features more than a few extremely rough VFX shots, mostly in the back half as the city is really going to hell. A sequence involving the intentional downing of a high-rise building is especially egregious in its laughably bad composite work – seriously, the shot of Jones running towards us as the building collapses is something special. It went on to earn $122 million worldwide, but on this budget plus marketing costs that means it was a definite financial bust.

Advantage: Both films fared well on video and probably count as successes now, but based strictly on box-office takes, this category goes to Dante’s Peak.

My Take

Both scripts feature a fair amount of silliness and weak writing, but Dante’s Peak is the better put together movie. It just looks and feels more consistently professional throughout. All of that said? Volcano is far more entertaining of a watch. Tommy Lee Jones getting pissed off at the earth’s crust is priceless, the precarious blend of the serious and silly is good fun, and moments of sacrifice are effective and affecting (even when they too are silly). It also earns a point for its clumsy but heartfelt attempt at commenting on the racial division in L.A. with a little girl’s observation that we all look the same when covered in ash. Aww. Neither film is more than mild entertainment, but if you can only watch one volcano-centric movie…make it Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). If it has to be one of these, though, see the one where the coast is toast… see Volcano.

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