MT VOID 05/02/97 (Vol. 15, Number 44)

MT VOID 05/02/97 (Vol. 15, Number 44)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 05/02/97 -- Vol. 15, No. 44

Table of Contents

Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-933-2724 for details. The New Jersey Science Fiction Society meets on the third Saturday of every month in Belleville; call 201-432-5965 for details.

MT Chair/Librarian:
              Mark Leeper   MT 3E-433  908-957-5619
HO Chair:     John Jetzt    MT 2E-530  908-957-5087
HO Librarian: Nick Sauer    HO 4F-427  908-949-7076
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist:
              Rob Mitchell  MT 2D-536  908-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  908-957-2070
Backissues available at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

URL of the week: US Geologic Survey home page. Lots of info about volcanoes. [-ecl]


On my trip to Japan I was looking around the plane at all the product placements and ads you see. It is getting as bad as going to a movie. In fact even the films you see on the flights had product placements. It used to be you got dinner on the plane and they would sort of hide whatever brand name products they were using. After all, they got nothing out of showing you that you were eating Kraft cheese. Then someone at the airline asked themselves why not see if they could get the stuff cheaper if they left the brand names on it. Now everything you get has a brand name. You get Anheuser-Busch pretzels, Evian water, odd brand names that you never heard of for the cookies, Scott tissue in the bathroom.

Before and after the movie they now have little short films to keep you entertained. And dog-gone-it every one is an ad for some company trying to sell you something. One of the things they had was a look at film special effects created by Silicon Graphics. They did effects for films like INDEPENDENCE DAY and TWISTER. Now I don't know why anyone would brag about the effects in TWISTER. From a distance you can get a good enough effect by showing just a woman's stocking the way they did in THE WIZARD OF OZ. By the time you get near a tornado it just looks like a windy day. There just was not enough to be all that impressive in TWISTER.

They showed a piece from SPACE JAM, a new film combining Warner Brothers cartoon characters with live-action basketball players defending the earth against basketball players from outer space. That seems to me like bragging that you made the bolts for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. According to them "this is the future of film-making." I have been feeling somewhat depressed since I heard that. I am really afraid that with falling educational standards in this country he may well be right. It would be nice for Hollywood to get back to films where the interesting effects are in the writing just like it would be nice to get back to music where the effects are created by the composer and not the technology, but I see neither in the offing. There is both a falling supply and a falling demand for good writing and composing. It is easy to decide we want another SPACE JAM and turn the crank to get it. You cannot say next year we will have another film like A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. If you try to turn the crank for that you will fail miserably. [-mrl]


(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: This is a disaster film that has nearly everything going for it but plot- originality. But for a couple of nice touches in the scenario, it is very much the story the viewer expects. However, with the exception of a few exaggerated scenes, this is pretty much what volcanoes really do. For me that makes DANTE'S PEAK the volcano film to see this spring. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) Spoiler Warning: Following the review is an excerpt from a U.S. Geological Survey response to the film DANTE'S PEAK. While it will certainly reveal in advance events of the film, it also enhances the viewing experience by allowing the reader then appreciate the film with an educated palate. New York Critics: 2 positive, 13 negative, 5 mixed

When I see a historical film I ask myself whether it is a good story and whether it is accurate to history. Similarly when I see a disaster film, particularly one in which the menace is caused by something scientific, I ask myself is it a good story and is it scientifically accurate. I tend to weigh the latter as important much more than most people since for me a good deal of the value of the film is to show me something that could happen to me. I can escape into a film much better if I think that what I am seeing is reasonably possible. Well, DANTE'S PEAK deserves only very lukewarm interest for its story, which is in large respects a very off-the-shelf disaster film plot. For me, however, a big plus is that most of the time it was not really very far from scientific accuracy. There are a few unrealistic scenes (most I recognized from having read the FAQ included below), but for the most part the film was fairly believable.

DANTE'S PEAK opens with a scene in a volcanic eruption. The force of the eruption has nature reversed in some fundamental ways. The sky is blotted out and flaming rocks are falling, seemingly from the clouds. Volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) has allowed himself to get to close to the eruption he was studying and it paying the price. This is four years before the action of the story, but it effectively conveys the Biblical doomsday feel that is associated with being caught too near a volcanic eruption. A few years later he still works for the U.S. Geological Survey when he is asked to take a look at some seismic activity in a place called Dante's Peak, Washington. Even he points out that it is a cornball name for a volcanic mountain. This place was just voted to be the second best small town in the country. Shortly after he arrives Dalton decides that small town number three is due for a promotion and this region which has not seen an active volcano since some time about 5000 BC may be ready to go active again.

It will come as no surprise to the viewer that Dalton's suspicions are well-founded and the volcano does indeed erupt. The plot follows the familiar disaster film formulae of disagreement over whether there real is a threat to the small town, with Dalton's supervisor (Charles Hallahan) unwilling to commit to believing an eruption is coming. Having been involved with the politics of having called a false alarm in the past, he wants to avoid at all costs a false alarm here. But the cost turns out to be high with many people caught in the town at the time of the disaster. Once the eruption comes there are familiar sequences of people getting into danger and of rescue. But at least the threats are relatively realistic for the eruption as are the numbers of people killed.

There are some nice touches in the script. There are financial reasons for the citizens of Dante's Peak to want to ignore the warnings. However the townspeople, led by town mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton of TERMINATOR), are smarter than townspeople usually are in disaster films. If the U.S. Geological Survey says it is time to go, they seem ready enough. The film is much more about the USGS team's wrangling to decide if they feel the mountain is really going to go. That seems fully believable. Much of what we see seems realistic, even at the expense of some visual excitement. The sky is darkened and ash is falling so it looks a lot like a dismal snowy day. One scene that does seem to be driven by the effects rather than logic shows elevated highway just outside this tiny isolated town. The special effects work is very convincing particularly in a flood scene near the end. There is a somewhat contrived setting near the end of the film. I might almost believe it would be there, but that the ELF would work from there seems unlikely.

The makers of other recent disaster films could take a lesson from DANTE'S PEAK. Unlike VOLCANO or JURASSIC PARK characters you get to know and get to like do not survive. There is some risk in killing off a good character, but it maintains the dramatic tension of the film and keeps the story realistic. The team sent from the U.S. Geological Survey actually look like a team of people that the USGS might send, not a bunch of attractive young actors. Other nice touches in the script include the fact there is no human villain. You would think that a film with a volcano does not need a human villain, but the makers of a major film like OUTBREAK, for example, felt necessary to put in a human to defeat as well as the title threat.

While the story values are weaker than they might be, DANTE'S PEAK is a good cinematic recreation of what it must be like to experience an erupting volcano. It is certainly the better of the two volcano films being released this spring. Not a great film but worth a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler...

The following is an excerpt from the U.S. Geological Survey web site at DantesPeak/dantes_peak.html. I am very pleased that the U.S. Geological Survey created this information page, as I think it much enhances the enjoyment of the film and also sets the record straight where the film strayed from accuracy. There are references to the film throughout the site, thought this section most directly discusses the science of DANTE'S PEAK.

 DANTE'S PEAK FAQ'S (frequently asked questions)

U.S. Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program February 10, 1997


Q: Is the eruption depicted in Dante's Peak realistic?

A: In many but not all respects, the movie's depiction of  eruptive
hazards  hits close to the mark, especially as regards the enormous
power unleashed during an eruption. Stratovolcanoes in the  Cascade
Range  and  Alaska erupt explosively and produce pyroclastic flows,
clouds of volcanic ash, and debris flows (lahars) that behave  much
as  shown  in the movie. Lava flows at these volcanoes, though, are
usually thick and slow moving, unlike the fluid flows in the movie.
Fast-flowing  flows  of  basalt  lava are common in Hawaii, though.
Real eruptions may be considerably larger or  smaller,  and  affect
larger or smaller areas, than those shown in the film.

Q: Can eruptions really threaten helicopters, as in the movie,  and
other aircraft?

A: Yes. Encounters between aircraft and clouds of volcanic ash  are
a  serious  concern.  Jet engines and other aircraft components are
vulnerable to damage by fine,  abrasive  volcanic  ash,  which  can
drift  in  dangerous concentrations hundreds of miles downwind from
an erupting volcano.

During the past 15 years, at least 80  aircraft  have  accidentally
encountered  volcanic  ash  clouds,  and  in  6  cases  jet engines
temporarily lost power. An international consortium  of  government
agencies,  including  the  U.S. Geological Survey, Federal Aviation
Administration, and National Weather  Service,  is  now  monitoring
ash-producing  volcanoes and tracking volcanic ash clouds to reduce
the likelihood of future encounters.

Q: Can the temperature of  hot  springs  near  a  restless  volcano
change quickly enough to injure bathers?

A: Temperature changes can and do occur, but  usually  more  slowly
than  shown  in  the movie. In fact, the temperature of hot springs
may increase, decrease, or stay the same  during  volcanic  unrest.
Increases  in  water  temperature, when they do occur, usually take
days or weeks to develop, rather than a few seconds as shown in the

In rare cases, earthquakes can suddenly  disrupt  a  volcano's  hot
groundwater  system, changing its temperature. And earthquakes have
been known to temporarily increase  the  flow  of  water  from  hot
springs, sometimes causing geyser-like activity that could threaten

Q: Do earthquakes large enough  to  collapse  buildings  and  roads
accompany volcanic eruptions?

A: Not usually. Earthquakes associated with eruptions rarely exceed
magnitude  5,  and these moderate earthquakes are not big enough to
destroy the  kinds  of  buildings,  houses,  and  roads  that  were
demolished  in  the  movie.  The  largest  earthquakes at Mount St.
Helens in 1980 were magnitude 5, large enough  to  sway  trees  and
damage buildings, but not destroy them. During the huge eruption of
Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines  in  1991,  dozens  of  light  to
moderate  earthquakes  (magnitude  3  to  5)  were  felt by several
hundred thousand people. Many houses collapsed, but  not  primarily
because  of  the  shaking.  Heavy,  wet ash from the eruption and a
hurricane accumulated on roofs and crushed them.

Stronger earthquakes sometimes DO occur near volcanoes as a  result
of  tectonic  faulting.  For  example, four magnitude 6 earthquakes
struck Long Valley caldera, California, in 1980,  and  a  magnitude
7.2  earthquake  struck  Kilauea  Volcano,  Hawaii,  in  1975. Both
volcanoes were quiet at the time. The Hawaii earthquake triggered a
small  eruption  at  the  summit  of  Kilauea.  No eruption has yet
occurred at Long Valley, but the area has been restless  since  the
1980 earthquakes.

Q: Can a town's water supply become contaminated when a volcano  is

A: Yes, but probably not as quickly as shown in  the  movie.  If  a
town's   water   supply   originates   directly  from  a  volcano's
groundwater system or from a stream  that  has  been  covered  with
volcanic  ash,  the  water  could  become  contaminated  with foul-
smelling gases or fine ash and other sediment. Some volcanic  gases
such  as  sulfur  dioxide dissolve in groundwater, making the water
acidic. Sulfurous odors, however, are caused  by  hydrogen  sulfide
gas, which smells like rotten eggs.

Q: Do scientists drive across moving lava flows?

A: No. Any attempt to drive across an active lava  flow,  even  one
that  has partly solidified to form a thin crust, is likely to lead
to disaster. With a temperature  of  1,700  degrees  Fahrenheit  or
higher,  fresh  lava  will quickly melt rubber tires and ignite gas
tanks. And if a vehicle gets stuck in moving lava, well,  you  know
the rest of the story.

Q: Can carbon dioxide gas from volcanoes kill trees and wildlife?

A: Yes. At several volcanoes around the world, carbon  dioxide  gas
released  from  magma  has  accumulated  in  the soil in sufficient
concentrations to kill vegetation or has collected in low areas and
suffocated  animals.  At  Mammoth  Mountain  in  California, carbon
dioxide has killed  about  100  acres  of  trees  since  1989,  and
visitors  to  this  area  have  occasionally  suffered  symptoms of
asphyxiation when entering cabins  or  below-  ground  excavations.
USGS  scientists  have  concluded  that  the gas is escaping from a
magma body beneath Mammoth  Mountain.   The  magma  itself  is  not
currently moving toward the surface, but the USGS is monitoring the
situation carefully.

Q: Can volcanoes suddenly become restless and erupt within one week
of the first signs of activity?

A: Yes. The first steam eruption at Mount St. Helens on  March  27,
1980,  was  preceded by only 7 days of intense earthquake activity.
The climactic eruption, on May 18, followed seven weeks  later.  An
eruption  of  Redoubt  Volcano  in Alaska on December 13, 1989, was
preceded by only 24 hours of intense earthquake activity. But other
volcanoes have been restless for months or years before an eruption
occurred, and sometimes a  period  of  unrest  doesn't  produce  an
eruption at all.

Q: Are robots used by the USGS to monitor volcanoes?

A: No. We rely on observations and measurements made by experienced
scientists  and  on  critical data sent by radio or satellite relay
from monitoring  instruments  installed  around  a  volcano.  These
instruments  include  seismometers,  tiltmeters, Global Positioning
System (GPS) receivers, gas sensors, mudflow (lahar or debris flow)
sensors, and temperature probes.

NASA has tested a robot named Dante  at  Mount  Erebus  volcano  in
Antarctica  and  Mount  Spurr  volcano in Alaska. The USGS believes
that, on Earth, experienced volcanologists are a  better  and  more
cost-effective alternative for monitoring dangerous volcanoes.

Q: Can volcanoes produce large explosive eruptions  and  rivers  of
fluid lava at the same time?

A: Not usually. During a single eruption,  a  volcano  CAN  produce
both lava flows and ash, sometimes simultaneously. The red, glowing
lava fountains and lava flows in Dante's Peak (including the active
flow  across  which  Harry  Dalton  drives) are characteristic of a
fluid magma, called basalt. In contrast, explosive gray ash columns
and  pyroclastic  flows shown in other scenes are characteristic of
more viscous magmas, called andesite,  dacite,  or  rhyolite.  It's
uncommon  for  a  volcano  to  erupt  magmas  of  widely  different
composition at the same time.

Q: Can lakes near volcanoes become acidic enough to be dangerous to

A: Yes. Crater lakes atop volcanoes are typically  the  most  acid,
with  pH  values  as  low  as  0.1  (very strong acid). Normal lake
waters, in contrast, have relatively neutral pH  values  near  7.0.
The  crater lake at El Chichon volcano in Mexico had a pH of 0.5 in
1983 and Mount Pinatubo's crater lake had a pH of 1.9 in 1992.  The
acid  waters  of  these lakes are capable of causing burns to human
skin but are unlikely to dissolve metal quickly. Gases  from  magma
that  dissolve  in  lake  water  to  form such acidic brews include
carbon  dioxide,  sulfur  dioxide,   hydrogen   sulfide,   hydrogen
chloride,  and  hydrogen  fluoride.   However,  the movie's rapidly
formed acidic lake capable of dissolving  an  aluminum  boat  in  a
matter of minutes is unrealistic.



(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: VOLCANO is a bizarre disaster film that treats an erupting volcano as an urban crisis. It is sort of a horizontal version of THE TOWERING INFERNO. Lava, seen as the main threat from the volcano, is treated a sort of monster that lurks in tunnels and crawls out on the street devouring all in its path. Most of the real dangers of a volcano like the force of the blast and superheated gasses get what is at most a superficial and much toned down treatment. Tommy Lee Jones stars as a functionary trying to keep a lid on the problem. The visuals are colorful, but the script is just terrible. DANTE'S PEAK had its faults and perhaps was no great shakes, but VOLCANO cannot hold a candle to it. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4)

This is the spring of two different volcano movies, DANTE'S PEAK and VOLCANO and it surprising how differently the two films treat the same sort of disaster. DANTE'S PEAK was a dark and downbeat film taking place in Mt. St. Helens territory and its disaster is filmed in dark colors. Its message is that volcanoes are immensely powerful forces of nature and even with the help of technology about the best we can hope for from a confrontation is to get away alive. But they are impressive. VOLCANO is set in Los Angeles among famous landmarks. It tells us that with a bit of ingenuity and a little time any problems including volcanoes can be solved. Much of VOLCANO is tongue-in-cheek with in-jokes about well- known Los Angeles personalities and digs at the controversial Metro system. In short VOLCANO is just one more colorful action film. It seem to have had little interest in seriously exploring the possibility of a volcano in Los Angeles. It does not seem to have been based at all on any existing accounts of real eruptions.

For Mike Roark (played by Tommy Lee Jones), the director of the Office of Emergency Management, the first day of the disaster starts off badly... with an earthquake. In spite of officially being on vacation, he wants to jump immediately into action. But his first problem is that he has to find a sitter to manage his rambunctious thirteen-year-old daughter Kelly (Gaby Hoffman). When he gets to his job, Mike's way of managing is to be in the field investigating while his assistant (Don Cheadle) manages things in the office. It is not long before the earthquake problem gives way to a mystery of several workers who were mysteriously burned in an underground tunnel by something strange that left no sign of its presence. Whatever it is leaves scorching only on its victims, not on the walls of the tunnel. It is time to call in spunky seismologist Dr. Amy Hoffmann (Anne Heche) and between them they discover that the real problem is volcanic flames that creep up through the cracks in the floor of the tunnel, then sneak away before they can be seen or leave a scorch-mark. Amy discovers this secret, but before she can tell anyone, the flames attack with a genuine volcanic eruption geysering out of the La Brea Tar Pits. This micro-mini-eruption sends flaming rocks into the air which come down like cannonballs for blocks around and ash starts falling like snow. But then the real threat appears, streams of hot liquid lava come out of the volcano. They flood Wilshire Boulevard setting fires and burning cars (but for some reason never exploding the gas tanks). With angry lava in the streets the question becomes, can it be stopped before it reaches actual homes? Also, can a coalition of Los Angeles residents put aside their ethnic differences and work together to save the city from the uncontrolled lava stream?

Director Mike Jackson has done some intelligent films including THREADS, THE RACE FOR THE DOUBLE HELIX, A VERY BRITISH COUP, L.A. STORY, and INDICTMENT. Each of those is a modest film that reaches for the mind rather than getting a gut reaction. Unfortunately, that was not how he made VOLCANO. This was a script that he should have turned down from the start, but perhaps he wanted to see what he could do with a bigger budget. The story and screenplay are by first-timer Jerome Armstrong, though Billy Ray shares the authorship of the script. Tommy Lee Jones is okay, but needs to get a little more variety into the roles he plays. He has one interesting character, but he has played that character too often. More interesting is the seismologist played by Anne Heche. She currently is also playing Johnny Depp's long-suffering wife in DONNIE BRASCO.

Armstrong throws frequent jokes into the script, though most of us will have to have many of the jokes explained. Apparently Dennis Woodruff's car, seen prominently in a pool of lava, is a familiar Los Angeles sight. Also familiar is a billboard with a particular actress. Just whether a certain restaurant chain we see multiple times is an in-joke or a product placement, I am not sure. There are some scenes probably were not very well thought-out. Mike seems to be abusing his power asking for special attention from the fire department for his daughter. This probably did not sit well with the audience. In one scene Amy apparently measures a temperature of the ground and gets a reading of 600 degrees just below her feet. That would have burned away her feet. While the special effects are generally fairly good, the digitized lava flows are not always convincing. Neither are some of the matte paintings.

If you want to see an action adventure see VOLCANO, if you want to have a feel for what it really would be like to be caught too close to an erupting volcano, see DANTE'S PEAK. VOLCANO rates a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   MT 3E-433 908-957-5619

Quote of the Week:

     The nature of men and women--their essential
     nature--is so vile and despicable that if you
     were to portray a person as he really is,
     no one would believe you.
                                   -- W. Somerset Maugham