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Experts Say ‘Dante’s Peak’ Has Hero, Bad Guy Mixed Up

Associated Press

Two thumbs up for the flaming rocks, mudslides and billowing black clouds. But the new volcano disaster flick “Dante’s Peak” has the hero and the bad guy backward.

That is the mixed review Lewis-Clark State College geology professors Scott Linnemann and Bill Heins give the movie, which was filmed in Wallace and opened Friday.

Volcanologist Harry Dalton, played by Pierce Brosnan, arrives in the town of Dante’s Peak just as the long-dormant volcano begins to rumble.

Dalton, along with town mayor Rachel Wando, played by Linda Hamilton, call an emergency city council meeting. Dalton urges city officials to put the town on alert.

The politicians balk, fearing bad publicity. Dalton’s boss tells him he is out of line. After all, the U.S. Geologic Survey has blown these kinds of situations in the past.

That is based on real life, the professors said.

In 1980, there were rumblings at Mammoth Lakes, Calif. All the seismic activity there was likely a result of magma moving around, said Linneman, who studies volcanoes.

He worked on his dissertation at the Cascade Volcano Observatory, the same Geologic Survey office referred to in the movie. That is where he met one of the volcanology advisers for “Dante’s Peak,” Norm McLeod.

Their expertise is apparent in the flick, Linneman said. NASA really did build a robot to climb into a crater. It looks like a spider and the movie version is called “spider legs.”

NASA’s robot was named “Dante,” they said, and was used to climb into a crater in the Antarctic.

When the geologists expressed their fear of eruption at Mammoth Lakes it scared off the tourists and devastated the community’s economy, Heins said. But the volcano never blew. Enraged locals began threatening the geologists.

The agency has since changed its policy to be careful about scaring the public unless there is a real danger.

Dalton probably would have lost his job for calling on the city council so quickly, Heins said. Dalton’s boss recommends monitoring the mountain for a week before alerting the public.

With today’s equipment that would be a responsible approach, the professors said. Scientists are able to predict with a good degree of accuracy when a mountain is ready to rock ‘n’ roll.

But thanks to Hollywood, Dalton is exonerated for following his gut, Heins said. And his boss dies, a just fate for someone who pooh-poohed the panic.

Dante’s Peak is modeled after Mount St. Helens. The volcanic activity is realistic, they said, until it begins to spew Hawaiian-style magma.

Perhaps the most realistic visual effect is the superheated pyroclastic clouds, they said. Two backpackers who boil in the hot springs in the movie, in reality wouldn’t know what hit them.

When magma hits water it does not boil; it explodes. And what about the acid lake that melts the metal boat of the fleeing hero and his companions?

There are acidic lakes associated with volcanoes, but it would take a while for them to become toxic enough to melt a boat. If the lake was that acidic, the family would have breathed it in, killing them long before they reached shore.

As part of the movie’s comic relief, one geologist exhibits an overzealous caffeine craving.

“The coffee guy, he’s dead on,” Heins said.

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