Universal Pictures invited hundreds of volcanologists and other scientists to free screenings of its film “Dante’s Peak” in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Honolulu last week, hoping for a good reception and getting a mixed one.
Most of the scientists seemed to like parts of the movie, particularly its depiction of a U.S. Geological Survey team at work, its demonstration of volcanic power and some of the special effects.
But 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.
Universal hired three retired Geological Survey volcanologists as consultants on the movie and has stated publicly that “the filmmakers insisted on scrupulous realism” regarding the volcanic details.
“We wanted to create an unforgettable experience,” declared executive producer Ilona Herzberg, “but also stick close to scientific fact.”
The scientists, while complimentary in some ways, seemed to feel the film falls short of that.
Bob Tilling, chief scientist of the Geological Survey’s volcanic hazards team nationwide, said that “overall, I thought it was pretty decent, wholesome entertainment. It is not a documentary by any means. …
“The monitoring team sent to Dante’s Peak looked like people I’ve worked with. The techniques they used, the bantering over coffee, was very accurate.
“But the tremendous earthquakes they showed were somewhat implausible. The pre-eruptive seismicity was on an order we just do not see.”
Tilling also was bothered by a scene showing a boat being melted and a grandmother mortally burned trying to flee the eruption across a lake that has turned to acid.
“There are some very highly acid lakes in the craters of volcanoes,” he observed. “However, in the movie, the rapidity of the lake becoming so acidic is not realistic. It takes time for acidic gases to get into the water. That was quite implausible.”
David Hill, chief of Geological Survey volcanic monitoring at the Long Valley caldera near Mammoth Lakes, Calif., noted that Dante’s Peak, dormant for 7,000 years, seems in the movie “to pop into life very quickly.
“In that part of the movie, time was really collapsed, in probably a way that was unreasonable,” Hill said.
Dan Dzurisin, scientist-in-charge at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., said he felt “in many ways, the film hits the mark.
“There certainly is some license taken in combining a whole smorgasbord of volcanic processes that wouldn’t take place all at once. But there are such cities in the Cascades and elsewhere that the Geological Survey is keeping an eye on.”
It is true, Dzurisin said, that as the protagonist in “Dante’s Peak” says at the outset, the odds are 10,000 to 1 against an eruption occurring.
“The probabilities are indeed that high when a volcano is not restless,” said the scientist. “But as soon as it becomes restless, then the odds decrease dramatically. As soon as the first earthquakes are noticed, then the possibilities sharply increase.”
What was unrealistic, they said, was that once precursory signs of an eruption became all too clear late one evening, there was a wait until 6 p.m. the next day to call a public meeting about evacuating the town.