Wolfgang Petersen made a classic underwater film with “Das Boot,” but he doesn’t fare nearly as well on the surface with “The Perfect Storm.” An attempt to do on the high seas what “Twister” did on great open spaces on land, this adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s bestseller about some Gloucester, Mass., fishermen’s battle with the storm of the century boasts a physical enormity courtesy of heavy digital effects work. But the yarn’s emotional undercurrents never take hold, resulting in a picture that leaves one thinking less about the fates of the characters than about how the actors had to spend most of their working days soaking wet. Warner Bros. might be able to propel this to a big opening, but ultimate B.O. promises to fall well short of the blockbuster biz needed to recoup the $140 million budget.
In setting and substance, pic resembles the sort of gritty melodramas about working-class people doing risky jobs that Warners used to crank out so effectively back in the ’30s and ’40s. And while developments in technology have enabled the contempo production team to create a bigger and more visceral film than would have been possible decades ago, the plain truth is that today’s digital wonders convey just as artificial a feel as the combination of good studio tank/rear projection/model work did then; no one seeing “Perfect Storm” is going to believe that what’s onscreen is any less or more “real” than kids thought “The Sea Wolf” was in 1941.
Junger’s nonfiction tome was based on the fate of a swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail, that ventured far into the Atlantic in search of a big catch in the fall of 1991 and got caught in the convergence of three weather fronts that created a storm of unmatched ferocity. It’s an elemental man vs. nature struggle, played out against a backdrop that, for obvious reasons, has always been difficult to film with absolute credibility and clarity.
After beginning with a low-key tribute to the thousands of Gloucester fishermen who have gone down to the sea in ships since the early 1600s, pic settles in for a half-hour of elementary scene setting and character exposition at the Crow’s Nest, a dockside dive where everyone goes to get smashed (and laid) after returning from a spell at sea. There’s Andrea Gail captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney), a divorced dad whose lucky streak at finding fish has hit a sand bar, and Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), also divorced, who’s got a hot thing going with the cutest girl in town, Christine Cotter (Diane Lane), herself a divorcee who wants to get her kids back and settle down with Bobby.
Also shuffled onboard are Billy’s other crew members: Murph (John C. Reilly), a young salt separated from his wife and adoring young son; Bugsy (John Hawkes), a scrawny dufus who strikes out in his bid for romance even with the largest lady in the bar (an engaging Rusty Schwimmer); and Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), a Jamaican who, in a tiresome piece of racial stereotyping is given no personality dimension other than being a stud, spends his entire shore time shagging with such vigor upstairs that it causes the ceiling light fixture in the bar to shake. Hovering on the periphery is Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a friendly rival fishing captain who wouldn’t mind becoming even friendlier with Billy.
Even though the inclement fall season is fast approaching, Billy decides to set out on one more trip to make up for his most recent disappointing haul and, out of sheer financial need, his crew signs back on; joining them this time is Sully (William Fichtner), a lout with a hair-trigger temper who develops an instantaneous, and thoroughly unmotivated, enmity with Murph.
The location photography of the town that inspired Kipling’s “Captains Courageous” and the characters’ scruffy grooming, constant drinking and smoking and heavy preoccupation with earnings establish the working-class milieu solidly enough. But the emotional links and desires, along with the motivational notations and behavioral ticks in Bill Wittliff’s screenplay are perfunctory and undeveloped, as if they were items to be ticked off a checklist. After you get past the joint reason for the new trip (money) and basic domestic situation (divorced or single, mostly), no further nuances or subtext are provided as the characters prepare to face an epic struggle for survival, thereby significantly shortchanging the emotional impact and audience investment in the outcome.
When the crew’s initial catches prove lackluster, Billy decides to push farther out, past the treacherous Grand Banks to the remote Flemish Cap, where they land enough swordfish to fill their hold. Unfortunately, the boat’s ice-making machine goes on the blink, meaning they’ll have to race directly home so that the fish won’t spoil before getting to market. But staring them in the face is an astonishing tempest created (as helpfully noted by TV weatherman Christopher McDonald) when Hurricane Grace heads north from Bermuda to collide with another storm and a cold front. With his macho survival instinct and sense of professionalism in full working order, Billy thinks they can beat the storm and plows right into it, but he’s unaware of its full magnitude.
Sequences of notable tension before the final onslaught include one in which Murph, his hand nastily impaled by a hook on a line, is yanked overboard and dragged underwater behind the Andrea Gail, and another in which Billy, blow torch in hand, must ride an errant outrigger in a gale like a bucking bronco to try to cast off a dangling anchor. But even here, one watches the action with heart and mind unquickened by genuine suspense, due both to the mild involvement in character and the haphazard nature of the incidents and the way they are conveyed.
Focus on the fate of the Andrea Gail is supplemented by a parallel episode about a yacht bearing three people (Bob Gunton, Cherry Jones and Karen Allen) who are the objects of a daring rescue attempt by a Coast Guard ship and an Air Force helicopter in the middle of the hurricane. Although awkwardly intercut with the main story at times, interlude commands rapt attention by virtue of the outrageous physical feats undertaken (the chopper at one point tries a nocturnal midair refueling in virtually zero visibility) and generates more feeling for the exceptionally brave, anonymous pilots than does the central drama, which concludes on a note that can only be called refreshingly somber in the context of today’s relentlessly uplifting cinema.
With the exception of Reilly, who in his full beard looks like a cuddly rat who would be at home on any vessel, cast is merely adequate. By the second half, the men are reduced to shouting almost all their lines to be heard over the watery din, while the dressed-down but ever-fetching Lane leads the group of worrying women on the home front.
Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects work is extensive and no doubt state of the art when it comes to the exceedingly difficult task of reproducing water by digital means. But even after one becomes accustomed to the rough weather’s computerized look, the sense of artifice remains, which might account for some of the sense of emotional remove. James Horner’s churning score never goes away, at least in the final hour, while other craft work is pro but undistinguished.