Four years ago, vulcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) was caught up in a massive eruption that turned to tragedy when he and his working and romantic partner were attempting to escape in their van only for a chunk of rock to smash her head in. He has never quite got over this day, but continues in his profession, as today when he is called by his boss Paul Dreyfus (Charles Hallahan) to head up to a place in the mountains of California where unusual seismic activity has been detected around the dormant volcano there. It's probably nothing, he is assured, but it doesn't hurt to check these things out, don't alarm the townsfolk nearby or anything... but Harry is not so reassured...
There were two rival volcano movies in 1997, this one and the more obviously-named Volcano, but Dante's Peak reached the cinemas first and therefore garnered the lion's share of the lava-based entertainment profits. Not that it was a huge hit or anything, but it did respectable business and demonstrated the public were still keen on watching the new strain of disaster films that had emerged in the nineties, particularly in light of the way it stuck faithfully to the conventions of that genre which had been such an audience-grabber during the first half of the seventies at least. That was not to indicate there was anything very new happening throughout its running time.
Once you've played the official James Bond on the big screen, you are forever identified as such, but Brosnan was going through his Roger Moore phase by trying to prove he could be a draw in other roles, and this was part of that endeavour, I mean, he’s a scientist in this one, though sadly he doesn't get to shout, "I'm a vulcanologist, Goddammit!" or something like that. He did get to shout other things, though you were in for a long wait for this to settle down (or ramp up) and deliver on the volcano action as the bloody mountain didn't erupt until the film was around halfway through, which could have viewers impatient, especially with the way the characters were portrayed.
Basically, everyone was an idiot apart from Harry and the local mayor, Rachel Wando, played by Linda Hamilton, who like her co-star was associated with a TV hit and a successful movie franchise. It was not so much a matter of identifying who was going to die from their actions in that first half, it was that everyone was a moron, from Paul who continually ignores Harry's warnings that there is a potentially devastating event about to occur, thus showing even scientists can be stupid, to the grandmother (Elizabeth Hoffman) whose sole purpose was to excuse the behaviour of Rachel's two kids when she refuses to leave her mountainside home in the face of imminent danger, therefore her grandchildren go to save her when the big rock blows its top and we have a reason for Harry and Rachel to be there among the lava.
Even the helicopter pilot is dumb enough, after marking himself out as a craven greed-monster by negotiating his fee to save another idiot scientist who falls down the crater a way, manages to blow up his mode of transport by trying to fly through an ash cloud later on. So what you had here was a catalogue of morons getting what they deserved, which according to this was as much death and destruction as they could possible cram into the movie. Naturally (or unnaturally), the laws of physics were intermittently suspended for Harry, Rachel and the kids to make good their escape whenever the peril seemed too much to overcome, but mostly this was a delivery system for schadenfreude where satisfaction would come by watching people get their just desserts in as Old Testament a manner of intolerance as was available. The effects were pleasingly practical, there were parallels with Twister in its construction, the dog survived against the odds, but you needed a dim view of humanity to get the most out of Dante's Peak. Music by John Frizzell.