Whirling tornadoes and hostile aliens made "Twister" and "Independence Day" two of last year's most popular pictures, and now "Dante's Peak" is erupting in theaters everywhere.
Disasters are the order of the day, with "Volcano" and "Titanic" on tap when the warm-weather season arrives. TV networks are also contributing to the calamity craze, placing items like "Asteroid" and "Pandora's Clock" on their agendas. And don't forget the Broadway stage, where "Titanic" will sink to a musical beat starting next month.
Is it a trend? Most critics say no, since only a few major titles are involved, and they're spread over too much time to build truly trendlike tremors.
The current scene is a pale shadow of the 1970s, when Hollywood racked up monumental grosses with epics like "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno."
True, the '70s disaster wave played itself out before long, but Hollywood has never been famous for learning from the past. The new cycle will end quickly if earnings don't stay high, since "event pictures" bursting with special effects are expensive to produce. Look for plenty more, though, if audiences cotton to the current screen catastrophes.
Early signs are making producers happy. Mountains of "Dante's Peak" publicity have American moviegoers panting to see it, and overseas audiences won't be far behind. The entertainment paper Variety reports that Universal recently unveiled its $100 million epic for exhibitors in Singapore, garnering a prediction that the movie will do "Twister"-type business, i.e., a non-US gross of some $270 million.
"Dante's Peak" has so much in common with "Twister" that there's every reason to believe the optimistic forecasts. Once again there's a man and a woman, a bucolic American setting, and a disgruntled Mother Nature at the heart of the story. And once again the dramatic ingredients are just a flimsy framework for high-tech effects meant to blow our collective socks off at carefully calculated intervals.
This time the background is a Pacific Northwest community that's just won second place in a contest for most livable American town. Obviously this is one trophy the villagers shouldn't get too attached to, and sure enough, something peculiar is going on at the local volcano. The ground starts trembling, tap water turns a funny color, and a couple of skinny-dippers get boiled in their swimming hole.
A handsome volcanologist shows up, muttering about acid levels and seismic activity. The townspeople resist his bad news, since the prospect of volcanic death would put a hefty dent in the tourist trade. The aptly named Dante's Peak cares nothing for such concerns, of course, and proceeds to blow its top. Everyone flees in a panic, leaving the handsome volcanologist to escort the lovely mayor, her adorable kids, and their feisty old grandma to safety.
Sound familiar? Of course it does, since every moviegoer over 12 has seen all this before in many films. If a lava flow of money does start pouring into Universal's coffers today, it will be yet another testament to the power of entertainment formulas perfected by Steven Spielberg, whose "Jaws" revitalized screen adventure back in 1975.
"Dante's Peak" begins with a sneak preview of volcanic horror - an eruption in Colombia that kills the volcanologist's wife - just like the scary-shark uproar that gets "Jaws" going. Even the soundtrack music is a dead ringer for the pulsing theme (dum-da-dum-da) that boosted Spielberg's suspense.
The mountain town is divided between money-driven ostriches (an eruption would ruin property values!) and right-thinking realists (she's gonna blow whether we like it or not!) exactly like the beach-front citizens of "Jaws," who also debated the dollar value of facing facts and fleeing for their lives.
And for a movie set in the Northern Cascades, there's a surprising number of water-centered scenes. "Jaws" lives again!
It's likely that the makers of "Dante's Peak" are fully aware of these resemblances, and far from being embarrassed, they're probably congratulating themselves for pulling off their Spielbergian stunt so successfully.
So instead of chiding them for lack of originality, it might be more worthwhile to ask whether they recognize the moral liabilities built into the disaster genre as a whole, which raises the uncomfortable question of how nourishing it is for the human spirit to wallow in meticulously produced views of death, disorder, and destruction.
Some specimens - Alfred Hitchcock's classic "The Birds" is a good example - show how physical dangers can draw out inner resources in ordinary people; others, like the recent Sylvester Stallone flop "Daylight," induce us to cheer for a handful of photogenic heroes while ignoring the suffering and extinction of everyone else.
"Dante's Peak" is cleverly constructed, attractively acted by Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton, and impeccably filmed by director Roger Donaldson and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiac, who gives some of the most frightening moments a sheen that can only be called beautiful.
But all this lies on the surface. Deeper down, the movie falls into the category of unfeeling thrillers that care less for the welfare of the characters than for the jump-in-your-seat value of the next shocking surprise.
* 'Dante's Peak' has a PG-13 rating; it contains a great deal of violence and some sexual innuendo.