Saturday, July 29, 2000

The Perfect Storm / ** (2000)

Wolfgang Petersen’s “The Perfect Storm” is the kind of disaster picture in which ships tossing around through mile-high water waves is inclined to so much observation that the narrative drowns out long before any climax is attained. And this is sad, to a certain extent, because the infamous genre revolved around natural disasters can at times dish out rather successful endeavors that combine both mind-numbing sequences of utter catastrophe with heartfelt human emotion. “Disaster dramas” are what they should be called: the few that lay waste to creation, but are courageous enough to peer into the eyes of a victim and ask, “how does this affect us as human beings?” Most of them, like “Volcano,” are too concerned with loud sound and visual effects to stand back and admire the human spirit of the stories.

There is obviously a great deal of sorrow associated with this film’s making, given the fact that, unlike its relatives, is based on actual events. In 1991, as the movie’s tag line indicates, Hurricane Grace began brewing up a massive weather front off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, when two fronts from the north unexpectedly collided with it and created something that most weathermen had only envisioned in dreams: the “Perfect storm,” a system so powerful and enormous that it literally shot off the scales (although I don’t quite understand the concept on how menacing this collision can be). Thank heavens, the storm never completely made it to land; it did, however, severely affect several lives of people who shared relation to an unfortunate crew of fishermen on sea at the time.

The story opens on the shore of a quaint New England community, when two competing factions of Sword-fishing arrive on dock to deliver their latest catches. They are greeted warmly by friends and family, asked to pack and deliver their loot, and are invited in to the local bar for beer, cheap fun and (as shown by one character) rocking sex upstairs that makes the chandeliers shake. The movie also uses this time to offer extensive insight on the lives of the fishermen, who are eventually taken back out to the sea to build back up their lackluster fish stock, but are tossed and turned through the waves when the massive “perfect storm” stands between them and the land.

There’s no sense in getting acquainted with the victims, though, because they are essentially duplicates of most of the characters in any recent disaster picture: one of them has no family and is consumed by work, one can’t stop thinking about the wonderful woman he’s left at home, one thinks he’s God’s gift to the opposite sex, one has an ego that overrides his work experience, and another has a child anxiously waiting at the dock for his father’s comeback. Filling the shoes of these walking clich├ęs are some extremely talented actors, who seem to care about their substance (at least), but are indecisive.

Such quibbles could have been tolerated, had writer Bill Wittliff given his screen personas the smallest morsel of individuality. They blend together like watercolors, often interacting on commands from others instead of on their own impulse. What’s worse, the more promising players are side-saddled because the big stars—Clooney and Wahlberg, notably—are given most of the screen time. And that’s even more disheartening, because Clooney is as boring as the endless tidal waves, and Wahlberg, who is a very reputable actor, is numbed down by the fact that he is hopelessly devoted to a woman not even on the seas with him. Essentially, this is his “Three Kings” persona on the high seas.

Among this, at least, are a few high points. Given its overexposure, the scenes of utter turmoil on sea are very ambitious and stirring (especially one of the last scenes, already exposed in television spots, in which the fish boat tries to scale a near-vertical tidal wave). Even more pleasing is the lush and distinctive cinematography, which is hued by blues and grays to give the style a sense of foreboding atmosphere as the storm moves onto the screen. And though the story is decidedly flat, it build great tension by not unleashing its fury immediately upon introduction.

The movie is based on a book by Sebastian Junger, which I never even knew existed until the recent publicity of the film. Perhaps it might be wise for some of us to check into that book: to see if it offers the much-needed scientific explanations, clarity, and character depth missed by the film. The moviegoers in recent memory certainly felt such an urge when “Battlefield Earth” arrived in theaters; never before had such a classic story been so eminently slaughtered by a respectable Hollywood studio. It wouldn’t be fair to equate “The Perfect Storm” with garbage like “Battlefield Earth,” but if I’m not off my hinges, both have miscalculated their material in rather extensive ways.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Action (US); 2000; Rated PG-13; 129 Minutes

George Clooney: Captain Billy Tyne
Mark Wahlberg: Bobby Shatford
John C. Reilly: Dale "Murph" Murphy
Diane Lane: Christina Cotter
William Fichtner: David "Sully" Sullivan
John Hawkes: Mike "Bugsy" Moran
Allen Payne: Alfred Pierre
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio: Linda Greenlaw

Produced by Alan B. Curtiss, Duncan Henderson, Gail Katz, Barry Levinson, Brian McNulty, Wolfgang Petersen and Paula Weinstein; Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; Screenwritten by Bill Wittliff; based on the novel by Sebastian Junger

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