The last time I saw "Dante's Peak" was almost 10 years ago when Universal released the Collector's Edition DVD. It was an impressive outing then, I recalled, but wasn't sure if the film itself would still live up to my – possibly exaggerated – viewing taste. Still, any high definition special effects spectacle deserves a viewing in high definition because the increased resolution helps drive these movies home like there's no tomorrow.
Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) is a volcanologist always to be found near a volcano with an attitude -- he's visited a good many of them. One day his institute sends him to the drowsy town of "Dante's Peak" to examine some seismic activities registered in the area's volcano. When he gets there, he discovers that the sleeping giant, dormant for so long, is preparing to erupt. In order to avoid looking foolish for issuing a mass alarm, as well as squelching the mass hysteria such an announcement would bring, his superior belittles the situation on the lack of evidence. While Dalton creates a love interest in the town's attractive mayor (Linda Hamilton), more and more evidence turns up that proves the inevitability of an impending eruption of the mountain the small town is nestled against. When, finally, the volcano sends fiery fountains of lava skywards, covering the whole town in thick layers of ashes, all hell breaks lose in a fight only Mother Nature can win.
"Dante's Peak", you have probably already guessed it is an effects movie and as such is not really character driven or "deep." There is some sort of a documentary feeling to this movie that makes all the effects even bigger, more realistic, and more frightening, however. The story and its likable characters may be less significant than the volcano itself, but they help a lot to make this lesson about volcanoes much more accessible and add a tremendous amount of entertainment value to the overall movie. It all gradually builds in tension, adding thrills one at a time as the plot develops towards its dramatic and suspenseful big finale.
Every detail of the movie is very carefully researched, resulting in a realistic portrayal of the impressive scope and danger of volcanoes to the extent that you can almost smell the sulfur in the air. Adding to the documentary feeling of "Dante's Peak" is the movie's photography, with its heavy use of tilted camera shots, spreading a subliminally agitated atmosphere throughout even the most serene scenery. Many of the movie's effects were realized in live action photography instead of shooting miniature models, which again lends tremendous realism and visceral impact to the overall experience. It is the stunning computer-generated imagery, however, that blows your mind when "Dante's Peak" finally erupts and huge pyroclastic clouds of burning ashes race towards the city, while steaming hot rivers of molten lava make an escape seemingly impossible. It perfectly captures the frightening beauty and devastation caused by this kind of natural disaster and teaches you not to be fooled by the serenity of a sunny day -- volcanoes are unpredictable.
Making its high definition debut on this HD-DVD release, "Dante's Peak" is every bit as impressive as you would expect. Presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in this 1080p transfer, the level of detail is simply staggering, making many of the volcano scenes look like something from the Discovery HD-Theater. Awe-inspiring and tragically beautiful, the footage is the material that makes showcase discs and easily I would pull out "Dante's Peak" to impress friends of the qualities of high definition video. The image also revels in colors that are lush and rich, especially in the gorgeous landscape shots, and then become muted and almost monochrome as ash begins to cover everything. Edges are razor sharp with begin exaggerated and the black levels give the picture impressive visual depth. This transfer easily gets a thumbs up.
Not to be outdone by the visual presentation, the audio side of things is just as impressive. Featuring a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus audio track, this soundtrack puts you right in the middle of the thick. Whether it's the rumbling of the earthquakes, the sizzling of trees burning right next to you or the general cacophony of a whole small town in fury, this track drives it home with no hold barred. The movie features an impressive musical score by James Newton Howard that perfectly meshes with the movie – sometimes serene and lovelorn, wild, furious and devastating at others.
As extras you will find a commentary track by director Roger Donaldson and production designer Dennis Washington on this disc. Culled from the original Collector's Edition that Universal released on DVD almost 10 years ago, the track is full of insight about the movie's production. The filmmakers lack some distance to the project however and a newly recorded commentary track would have given them – and viewers – the chance to see how the making of the film is perceived like compared to today's large scale effects productions.
"Getting Close To The Show" is a making-of featurette that give us a good peek behind the scenes. With interviews and covering many of the effects utilized to create the illusion of "Dante's Peak," the documentary is still worth watching, running for a full one hour, and featuring anything in regards to the making of this movie from the early start of the project, information on the casting of the movie, location scouting, and interesting anecdotes from the shoot. The only drawback here might be that it is presented in 48p standard definition.
"Dante's Peak" doesn't show any signs of age. For a special effects movie, that is impressive, as the technologies developed for these kinds of movies are usually becoming standard fare within 12 months of its release and put to use by other productions ad nauseam. It had been a long time since I last saw this movie but I'm glad I popped in this HD-DVD version because not only was it a great thrill-ride, it was also a truly impressive high definition experience.