Pick Your Disaster

THE DISASTER MOVIE IS BACK, though I'm not sure anybody was asking for it. Why the sudden torrent of twisters, volcanoes and alien invasions? We could give you a sociopolitical tap dance about the post-cold-war Zeitgeist, and how we're projecting our fears of communism back onto Mother Nature, but it would be hard to keep a straight face. No, Hollywood is cranking out this stuff because it needs to put its new high-tech toys to work. When you can create piping-hot streams of lava entirely inside a computer, and digitalize rolling black clouds of smoke and ash, why not make Dante's Peak, the first of 1997's two volcano lavapaloozas?

The special effects are definitely the best thing about this curiously bland disaster-thon: three cheers for the collapsing freeway, the broken dam, the cool miniatures of collapsing buildings and the swirling volcanic ash (but no cheers for our first glimpse of the peak itself, as phony as a velvet painting). Unfortunately, attached to this fine display of technology are a story and something resembling characters, and we have to wade through a full hour of said "story" before the damn mountain blows.

Pierce Brosnan is the volcanologist with a Tragic Wound. (His fiancee, who also loved volcanoes, was killed by one: we know because it's the first scene in the movie.) Now he sees in Dante's Peak, Wash., all the signs of another looming disaster, but of course no one will heed his warnings, because it might scare off big business coming to town. Supplying the generic love interest is Linda Hamilton as a single more and the model city's mayor.

Leslie Bohem's script is almost self-parody, but director Roger Donaldson keeps a straight face throughout, even when the obligatory family dog is rescued from the encroaching lava and Granny gets her legs parboiled in an acid lake. It's a sign of how badly awry the human dimension of this movie has gone that Granny's death, played for pathos, evokes only relief. If only those computers could generate virtual emotion.