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1997 Was the Year That Gave Us Two Volcano Movies

Within the space of a couple months, Hollywood doubled up on finding ways to make lava lame — first with Pierce Brosnan and then again with Tommy Lee Jones

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

If you think Hollywood is out of new ideas now, you should have been around in the late 1990s, when studios had a weird habit of doubling-up on strange movie premises. The most famous example, of course, was Deep Impact and Armageddon, twin blockbusters about interstellar material on a collision course with Earth — a comet in the former, a meteor in the latter. But a year earlier, an even stranger narrative duplication occurred — one that’s less well-remembered because the movies weren’t big hits. (Also, the films weren’t as good.) In the early months of 1997, we had dueling volcano films. There were no winners in that pseudo-epic showdown.

Dante’s Peak and Volcano didn’t come out of nowhere. The mid-1990s had seen a resurgence in disaster movies, thanks largely to 1996’s top-two grossing films, Independence Day and Twister, but everything from 1995’s Apollo 13 to December 1997’s Titanic could also loosely fit within the same genre. In February 1997, Dante’s Peak hit theaters, starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton, and was followed two months later by Volcano, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. But that’s not how those release dates started out: In the summer of 1996, Universal put out ads announcing that its film, Dante’s Peak, would be opening March 7th, prompting 20th Century Fox to later claim February 28th for Volcano. Universal then landed on February 7th, which forced Fox to admit defeat and push its movie back to April.

Clearly, getting to audiences first was paramount. “I don’t want to put all this effort into a movie and see it written off because we don’t come out first,” Dante’s Peak director Roger Donaldson told the Los Angeles Times in November 1996. “I’d be a liar if I said that I’m not being pressured from marketing people to get the movie out. But we’ve both agreed not to compromise the picture because we’ve been pushed into a corner by Fox.” In the same article, Volcano producer Lauren Shuler-Donner declared, “I don’t feel competitive with Dante’s Peak. Theirs is adventure-oriented while ours is a disaster film in which competitive city departments and ethnic groups come together to fight an urban volcano. While it would be nice to be first, it’s not a driving desire. With enough space between them, the market can bear both.”

She wasn’t wrong about the fact that the two movies were very different ways of tackling the exploding-volcano thriller. Dante’s Peak opens with volcanologist Harry (Brosnan) trying to get his beloved, and fellow volcanologist, Marianne (Walker Brandt) to escape with him after a site they’re studying is starting to erupt. But tragedy strikes when Marianne is killed during their getaway, which both conveniently establishes Harry’s heartbreaking backstory and illustrates to the audience that volcanoes are no joke.

Years later, Harry is sent to investigate some strange seismic activity in a cute little town in Washington State called Dante’s Peak. He’s pretty sure the local volcano is gonna blow, but Mayor Rachel Wando (Hamilton) doesn’t want to hear that — like the stubborn authorities in Jaws, she’s too concerned about scaring off potential tourists to do anything about the imminent threat. Well, sure enough, that volcano does erupt, leading to widespread chaos, some action sequences and even a love story. Seriously, if we’ve learned anything from disaster movies, it’s that you should always, always, always listen to the scientist who tells you something awful is about to happen — and, if you can, try to save the dog in peril.

By comparison, Volcano was kinda (kinda) more cerebral, imagining a scenario in which an undiscovered volcano underneath Los Angeles is activated after an earthquake. There aren’t as many big explosions as Dante’s Peak, but if you ever wished that Netflix’s dopey game show Floor Is Lava had been adapted for the big screen, Volcano is the motion picture for you. Watch out: There’s… lava… coming right this way!

Years ago, when I interviewed Billy Ray, who wrote the original draft of Volcano, he owned up to his grand ambitions for the film. “I think that script came from the most pretentious parts of me,” he said in Screenwriting, a book of interviews with Hollywood’s top writers. “L.A. was still recovering emotionally from the Rodney King riots, and I had this super-pretentious idea that the lava could serve as a metaphor for the social ills that were under the city waiting to erupt.” Admitting that the film “deserves to be ripped on,” Ray said his original version would have cost about $120 million to make and “had lots of subplots in it that I think was good. They shot a movie that was $90 million that had a lot of the textural material cut out, and so it just wound up being a movie about a volcano.”

Volcano starred Jones as Mike, the head of emergency management, who flirts with Heche’s Amy, a seismologist who first discovered this volcano. Together, they will do whatever they can to stop the lava on its path west across Los Angeles. It’s touching to know that, even in the midst of a volcano-related catastrophe, our red-blooded American heroes will still find time to develop a romantic spark. But, really, Volcano is horniest when it comes to destroying L.A. landmarks. The Beverly Center and parts of Wilshire Boulevard get wrecked — including the building where the recently-opened Academy Museum now sits. Watch it all burn!

Although Ray acknowledged that his thematic interests in writing Volcano were probably preposterous, you can at least somewhat see the movie as a goofy takedown of L.A. soullessness, as if the lava is punishing the city for being so vapid. (And having Mick Jackson, who directed Steve Martin’s lovingly caustic City of Angels sendup L.A. Story, at the helm only heightened that sense.) But 25 years later, Volcano’s effects are incredibly cheesy, whereas Dante’s Peak’s hold up a little better because of the emphasis on practical effects. Indeed, Donaldson, who would work again with Brosnan on 2014’s The November Man, was always proud of Dante’s Peak, saying, “We had so much fun making that movie. Both just because we were all together up in the wilds of Idaho in this little town, so we were all thrown together. … [But] that scale of moviemaking is gone. … Everything’s real [in the movie]. It’s all real.” 

Neither film got good reviews, and neither was a commercial success. Amusingly, the battle between the two studios to be first extended to a foolish decision on Universal’s part to claim that its movie was also the more scientifically accurate. To that end, Universal invited scientists to a free screening of Dante’s Peak to get their approval, which backfired. In an L.A. Times piece published around the film’s release, writer Kenneth Reich noted, “most of the dozen volcano experts interviewed at length after the screenings faulted the film for exaggerations and for compressing what happened at the mythical peak in the Cascade range to a time frame that was far too short.” 

When Volcano came out, Fox made no such claims to the film’s believability, with even the movie’s science advisor, geology professor Rick Hazlett, saying, “It is by all geological reason impossible for us to expect an eruption in the Los Angeles area any time in the near geological future, which is to say a few million years.” Also, he pointed out that lava wouldn’t go west across L.A. because that would be uphill. But the best comment came from Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson, who in the same piece asked, “Why are we trying to employ a method of scientific analysis to this garbage?” In fact, he had Caltech insist that Fox change Amy’s place of work to the fictional California Institute of Geological Studies so that his institution’s good name wouldn’t be sullied.

Dante’s Peak and Volcano emerged at the height of the 1990s’ disaster-movie boom, but they remain the dullest of the bunch, less joyous than Independence Day, not nearly as charming as Twister, hardly as accomplished as Titanic. (Even the dreary Deep Impact at least aspires to be a realistic version of what would happen.) Instead, these two volcano flicks offered B-movie blandness, a boringly earnest variation of disaster movie populated by A-list actors who didn’t feel right in their roles — especially Jones, who would be much better a few months later alongside Will Smith in Men in Black

That said, I do love Jones’ quote about what Volcano was about: “The story’s quite old,” he said at the time. “It’s not the first time that an inexorable force of nature has threatened the works of man that have been erected in his vanity. Not the first time in a storyline he’s had to abandon his vanity and cohere as a family group in order to survive. … It happened to Noah.”

Brosnan at least was more honest while promoting Dante’s Peak, saying, “I have loved disaster films since The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, and the success of Twister only confirms that people still love these kinds of movies. When they work, they are a great ride. People just love seeing other people in jeopardy.”

There have been volcano movies since. In 2014, Paul W.S. Anderson gave us the 3D, ersatz-Titanic spectacle of Pompeii, and that same year Pixar released the short Lava. A couple years later, documentarian Werner Herzog made Into the Inferno, about active volcanoes around the world, and at last month’s Sundance, one of the most acclaimed documentaries was Fire of Love, about married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who died in 1991 during an eruption in Japan. Fire of Love features plenty of footage of volcanoes and rushing lava, and it’s legitimately thrilling and awe-inspiring — as opposed to the hacky drama of Dante’s Peak and Volcano

For the record, Dante’s Peak made more money — opening first probably did make a difference — but the utter lack of cultural footprint left by either movie underlines just how irrelevant both films ended up being. But at least you’ve perhaps heard of those two volcano movies. Truth is, there was a third volcano film out that year — the ABC television drama Volcano: Fire on the Mountain, which opened right between Dante’s Peak and Volcano

It starred Dan Cortese. 

Suddenly, Tommy Lee Jones trying to stop some slow-moving lava doesn’t look so bad.