Way back in the spring of 1997 there was one super-heated debate between obsessive moviegoers to decide which is the better disaster movie — Volcano or Dante's Peak? Much like the great Deep Impact vs. Armageddon debate that arose the following year, the battle between the two movies that share a concept similar enough to be comparable but differing in so many ways. But before we get started, we probably need a little refresher about the two movies to avoid any confusion further down in this debate (unless you're obsessed with these two movies).
Released on February 7, 1997, Dante's Peak is the disaster movie about a small Washington state town that is in proximity to a volcano that is believed to be dormant for some time. Things get out of hand for the small town when the giant mountain of which the town is built erupts. A little less than three months later on April 25, 1997, Volcano received its worldwide release. Set in sunny Los Angeles, California, the movie shows what would happen with active volcano in the City of Angels.
Believability Of The Concept
Both of these movies contain some pretty absurd action scenes and concepts, but which one is more believable?
In Volcano, an earthquake stirs an ancient underground volcano, causing the sleeping monster to awaken with fury and cover much of downtown Los Angeles with lava. As spectacular as it looks, and despite there being significant seismic activity in the area, there are no recorded instances of volcanic eruptions in the city.
Dante's Peak's Believability
Dante's Peak, on the other hand, is far more plausible, especially with the movie being set in Washington state, which is the home to Mount St. Helens, which erupted as recently as 2008, and was the location of the devastating 1980 eruption.
Which Movie Wins On Believability?
It looks like this round goes to Dante's Peak. On to the next.
Volcano and Dante's Peak both feature some of the biggest actors of their time as well as some great up-and-comers, but which one has the better overall cast.
Volcano's cast is led by Tommy Lee Jones as Office of Emergency Management director Mike Roark and Anne Heche as California Institute of Geological Sciences geologist Amy Barnes, both of which were pretty big names for the time. Outside of the two main stars, the disaster movie also features Gabby Hoffman, Don Cheadle, Keith David, Richard Schiff, and a large ensemble of character actors to fill the movie's bit roles.
Dante's Peak's Cast
Dante's Peak, on the other hand, features a smaller cast that includes stars Pierce Brosnan as geologist Harry Dalton and Linda Hamilton as Rachel Wando, the mayor of the small Washington town. The supporting cast features Charles Hallahan, Grant Heslov, Elizabeth Hoffman, Tzi Ma, and a few others to round out the movie.
Which Movie Wins On The Cast?
As great as it was to see James Bond and Sarah Connor face off with a destructive volcano, this round has to go to Volcano for that impressive supporting cast of characters, including Don Cheadle the same year he appeared in Boogie Nights.
The Special Effects
With movies like Volcano and Dante's Peak, believable and eye-catching special effects are crucial, so let's find out how they match up.
Volcano's Special Effects
When I first saw Volcano when it came to home video back in the late '90s I was blown away by the special effects, especially in the final act when the lava flow gets closer and closer to the protagonists, but that all changed with the advent of high-definition television. Looking back on it now, the overused CGI takes away from some of the better practical effects, except for those random slow-motion shots.
Dante's Peak's Special Effects
The special effects in Dante's Peak, while not comparable to anything you'll see in 2020, surprisingly still hold up after all this time. The shots of the volcano erupting, combined with the practical effects and placement of ash and darkened skies adds a level of detail and believability that remains just as impressive as it was all those years ago. It's especially apparent when Harry and Rachel escape through the deserted and partially destroyed town.
Which Movie Wins On Special Effects?
Thanks to the use of practical effects combined with the computer-generated elements, this round goes to Dante's Peak.
At the center of each movie is a touching moment where a character sacrifices themselves to save everyone else, but which one takes the prize for making audiences cry more?
Volcano's Inspirational Moment
For the early goings of the movie, John Carroll Lynch's Stan Olber is the wiseass Los Angeles MTA director chomping on gum as he tries to quit smoking and yelling at his workers, but he enters the hall of heroes when he saves a driver in the tunnels of the Los Angeles that have been overtaken with hot lava. Seeing no way out for himself, Stan jumps into the lava flow and throws the train's barely conscious driver out of harm's way before succumbing to the heat of the flow.
Dante's Peak's Inspirational Moment
In Dante's Peak a large section of the movie revolves around Harry and Rachel (and her kids) setting off to rescue her estranged ex mother-in-law, Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman) who lives in a remote cabin near the volcano. The group gets to Ruth in time, but as they cross the small lake back to safety, the group notices that the acidic water is eating away at metal structure of the boat. Without missing a beat, Ruth jumps in and pushes the boat the remaining few yards to the shoreline. The elderly woman ends up dying, but saving her family and the rest of the survivors in the process.
Which Movie Wins On The Inspirational Moment?
As cheesy as it is to see Ruth yelling as she pushes a boat to safety, her sacrifice does save the day whereas Stan's sacrifice, while noble, isn't all that consequential to the events of the movie. This round goes to Dante's Peak.
Settling The Great Lava Debate Of 1997
After going through the four rounds based on the believability of the story, the cast, the special effects, and inspirational moments, it looks like Dante's Peak is our winner. Honestly, I didn't see this happening, but that's the result we got and I'm sticking with it. Do you agree with my conclusion or do you think that Tommy Lee Jones' Volcano was the superior disaster movie of 1997? Make sure to let me know in the comments and also let me know what other movies you'd like to see go head to head.
This poll is no longer available.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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