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"Volcano" and "Dante's Peak"

Volcano Movies of 1997

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In 1997, Hollywood flirted with geology in "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak." The first of these films featured an eruption right in Hollywood. The Firesign Theatre foresaw this 20 years before in "The Day Universal Studios Burned Down," about a disaster in a collection of old disaster movie sets. That 30-second spoof had more entertainment in it than both feature films combined.

Science? Fuhgeddaboutit

I won't bother scoffing at how these films mangle science—the producers' own words say enough, for instance in explaining why "Volcano" occurs in "one of L.A.'s most beloved landmarks, the La Brea Tar Pits. The active geological location seemed a natural choice to the filmmakers." Besides, enough other viewers have left acid opinions over at imdb.com. Just trust me: there is no lava anywhere near Los Angeles.

It's not fair to hold the movies to a factual standard; that isn't their purpose. Consider the plot of the last movie named "Volcano," a 1950 Italian production in which a volcano "is symbolic of the seething passions of Anna Magnani, exiled back to her birthplace for being a mainland prostitute and set to work in the pumice mines of cold lava. In the end, ostracised and despised by the village women, she kills her sister's would-be lover to save the young girl from him, then dies in the necessary final explosion of the volcano." No doubt the very first volcano film, 1908's "The Last Days of Pompeii," was no different.

The First Web Catastrophes

This generation of eruption movies was the first to have elaborate Web sites. The home page for "Dante's Peak" was Hollywood science at its best. That means the worst thing was a breathless copywriter calling the eruption "a force equal to the power of a million atomic bombs which suddenly explodes to wreak havoc and destruction on an unsuspecting population." The peak itself, set in the Cascade Range, could have really existed there.

The director of "Dante's Peak" consulted with a true scientific star, volcanologist Jack Lockwood. Everyone was at pains to affirm the movie's verisimilitude, though the real experts at the U.S. Geological Survey quibbled that "the movie's rapidly formed acidic lake capable of dissolving an aluminum boat in a matter of minutes is unrealistic." FX professionals raved about its production values.

Going from there to the "Volcano" site was like stepping from a museum into a carnival midway. It was Shockwave-intensive and full of action games. There were deep-drilled bios of the stars, cast, and backstage crew. Oh yes, there was science—one little Java globe: "Roll your mouse over the areas marked by red dots to see it explode and to receive the name of the location." You'd click on one of the 13 dots—Yellowstone—and learn that Old Faithful erupts "every twelve minutes, precisely." NOT! (But I said I wouldn't scoff. . .)

Effects and Reality

The 1997 pyro-spectaculars brought advances in movie lava. (Volcanic ash is still just shredded newsprint.) At "Dante's Peak," the lava was all digital. In "Volcano" producers used "traditional miniature techniques, newer miniature methods involving ultraviolet light and dyes, computer generated effects—and sometimes a mix of all three." In fact, Hollywood magma had star personality, according to FX tech Mick Jackson: "It has all the characteristics of the best movie villain: you can not kill it." Mat Beck was more nuanced: "Lava behaves in a complex and interesting way. The challenges were to make it flow, set things afire, glow, and vibrate the air with the kind of heat pattern you see over really hot objects. It also had to interact with the environment." Presumably leading man Tommy Lee Jones was directed with the same sensitivity.

Those movie guys would be lost without the brave and curious people who fly over, crawl around, and sometimes die in real lava. The filmers of commercial volcano videos may be brass-plated barnstormers or unassuming types with geology degrees like the staff of Hawaii's Ka 'Io Volcano Video. Their footage is used by the studio wizards to perfect big-screen lava.

Then there are the earnest, intrepid, and occasionally witty scientists who spend field seasons in the grit and the gases collecting data. Their rewards are more sublime than the thumbs-ups of critics. For one thing, their data is essential for the computer models of viscous flow used to generate fake lava flows. For another, they write their own lines, like one fellow in the Galápagos: "We found eight marine iguanas quite literally cooked on the surface of the lava. Some were charred, but others were in remarkably good condition." A Japanese film crew was on hand for that barbecue.

PS: If "The Last Days of Pompeii" were remade today, I'll bet they would find a way to include the ancient erotic murals there that were unknown to the public in 1908. Think of the death scenes to be staged in that killing rain of shredded newsprint!

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