|Perfect Storm, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
If you’ve seen even the poster art for ‘The Perfect Storm,’ you have some idea of where this movie is heading. The shot of a fishing boat being stood vertically on end by a 100-foot-wave is even more dramatic in action – if you just can’t wait to see it, the actual shot is in Chapter 34 – than it is as a still life. The filmmakers’ recreation of what was dubbed "the storm of the century" when it occurred in reality is quite literally awe-inspiring, while providing a service. Most viewers of the film will come away feeling that they now know what it’s like to be out in the worst weather imaginable and therefore don’t have to endanger themselves by searching out the real thing.
In 1991, Hurricane Grace blew up from Bermuda to join forces with a cold front coming down from Canada and a storm moving off of the Great Lakes. The three collided in the North Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. coast, producing a horrific storm. Sebastian Junger wrote a non-fiction book about the event, focusing on the fates of two vessels, the commercial swordfishing boat the Andrea gail and the small sailboat Satori, as well as the Air/Sea Rescue team dispatched to try to rescue both crews.
The ‘Perfect Storm’ film, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and scripted by William Wittliff, does include the Satori and the Air/Sea Rescue operation. However, the focus is primarily on the Andrea Gail and her crew out of Gloucester, Mass: skipper Billy Tyne (George Clooney), young Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), seasoned sailors Dale Murphy (John C. Reilly), Michael Moran (John Hawkes) and Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) and old hand/new to this ship David Sullivan (William Fitchner). Because the last run through the Grand Banks brought a low yield, Capt. Tyne determines that he’ll take the Andrea Gail as far as the Flemish Cap, where the fish population hasn’t been decimated yet.
The cast is uniformly well-chosen, particularly Clooney, who strikes exactly the right balance between confidence, stubbornness and desperation. Wahlberg is likable as the optimistic Shatford and Diane Lane displays verve as his loyal, tough girlfriend.
The filmmakers try hard to set up the reality of the lives and jobs of the fishermen and their loved ones before the maelstrom strikes, but while ‘Storm’ is a lot more low-key and better-acted, the opening sections feel a bit like standard disaster movie prologue material. To be sure, ‘Storm’ veers well away from anything like standard disaster movie mode once it’s revved up, but the early sequences seem a touch more mundane than necessarily while establishing the characters’ everyday lives.
On the flip side of this, the people aboard the Satori are given such short shrift that (unless we tune in to the audio commentary tracks) we’re never sure who they are, what their relationships are or precisely what they’re doing on the open ocean. Likewise, we see just enough of the truly heroic Air/Sea Rescue team to want to know more about these people, who intentionally plummet out of helicopters into freezing, crashing water for the purpose of saving lives.
However, the harsher the storm becomes, the less these complaints matter. Petersen delivers us straight into the belly of the beast for a harrowing experience. The special effects shots cut seamlessly together with the live-action material. For viewers who want to know how specific shots were achieved, there’s a helpful and amusing audio commentary track from special effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier and special effects producer Helen Elswit (the latter has a funny story about inadvertently freaking out the ILM team by using a ‘Perfect Storm’ production nickname for a certain type of shot).
The sound is impressive, coming at us faithfully from all directions. The 5.1 mix for the DVD gets off on the right foot up front, with nice movement on the pre-credits music, placing some light acoustic guitar in the mains while setting horns and more dramatic strings in the rears. A barroom sequence in Chapter 4 has a nearly ideal mix, keeping Bruce Springsteen’s "Hungry Heart" tangibly but unobtrusively in the rears while blending in the mains with a good, clear dialogue track coming from the consistently strong center. Chapter 9 has a startling, attention-getting pier horn in the right main. Chapter 13 has some especially good water effects that are precisely placed, so that we share the crew’s sense of aggravation as we feel the location of each splash hitting the deck. In Chapter 24, the scream of the wind momentarily sounds like the shriek of a human voice. Chapter 28 has fine visuals as the Andrea Gail realistically sleds down steep waves.
One complaint here is that Horner’s score, while musically attractive, is cranked up to a volume that competes with the gale sounds and seems to function under the theory that the audience needs to be told what to feel at every single moment. It starts to become noticeably obtrusive in Chapter 15 and comes close to swamping the dialogue in Chapter 22. In Chapter 26, we get a respite from the music, which proves that the ambient sounds of the wind, waves and rain are a lot more emotionally unsettling left to their own devices.
Besides the special effects audio commentary, there are also separate full-length commentaries from director Petersen (provided in interview format with supplemental material producer J.M. Kinney) and book author Junger. All of the commentary tracks are found in the menu under "Languages" rather than "Special Features" (which contains an agreeable "making-of" and artwork and stills galleries).
Although ‘The Perfect Storm’ would seem to belong to the same genre as ‘Twister,’ its effects – emotional as well as physical – turn out to be quite different. ‘The Perfect Storm’ is stunning in places, horrific in others, sometimes haunting and occasionally banal, but the one thing it’s definitely not is a funhouse ride.