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Perfect Storm, The Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 July 2006

Image Off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Fisherman Billy Tyne (Clooney) and his crew (Walberg, Reilly, Fichtner etc.) return from a month at sea with a disappointing catch. Currently suffering from a patch of bad luck, the determined Tyne is dead set on breaking this demoralizing streak and cuts his crew’s shore leave short and sets out again three days later. After weeks at sea, and another poor yield, Tyne sets his boat for the distant Flemish Cap where he finally scores a dream catch and heads home with a revitalized crew—but fate holds a nasty surprise for them. Three separate storms are about to collide mid-sea and create a record-breaking atmospheric cataclysm (the Perfect Storm of the title)…and Tyne is heading straight into it.

Based on events that occurred in late October 1991, “The Perfect Storm” tells the gripping and tragic story of the swordfishing boat The Andrea Gail, its crew and the Gloucester fishing community. Petersen ably tells his story with an appreciable level of reality and refreshingly doesn’t over-dramatize the crewmen’s story. As such, its focus isn’t on a “melodrama on the high seas” angle but on the very real drama and struggle of the fisherman and their determined but frustrated captain. The acting is solid across the board. Mastrantonio (allowed to look un-glamorous and believable as a working-class fishing boat captain; her scenes with Clooney display a tangible chemistry. Lane and Walberg make for a heart-breakingly likeable couple. Other peripheral subplots, like the weatherman who is tracking the storm, don’t integrate into the story as well. Karen Allen’s besieged sailboat at first seems superfluous, but this real-life story is part and parcel of the Andrea Gail tragedy, and without it we’d lose a key component of the Coast Guard’s rescue efforts.

What’s most impressive about the film has to be the astounding technical and physical accomplishment in the visual effects work. This ground-breaking feat should have shared the Oscar with “Gladiator.” That Petersen and the production team even conceived of how to visualize the different components and integrate them together, is itself a monumental achievement. That all the elements seamlessly integrate and create a stunning, believable reality is mind-boggling. The creation in CGI of the stormy seas was a milestone. This is a story of people fighting against an incredible, titanic storm, and it would be very easy for the film to turn into a long special effects reel, but thankfully due to Petersen’s deft handling and Bill Wittliff’s screenplay, we never lose sight of the characters. In fact, the film’s gripping sense of suspense is built upon us as an audience caring what happens to these people, and we do, deeply. The film poster’s (and HD DVD packaging’s) signature image is a doozy but perhaps reveals too much and builds too much of an expectation as we wait for events to build toward that one shot, but the sheer dramatic tension and weight of that sequence when it actually occurs in the film (and the events which follow it) are so intense and hair-raising, they actually overshadow our expectations. Image-wise, this HD DVD disc is impressive but not quite perfect. It’s definitely a step up from the DVD transfer, purely in terms of image stability and the increased level of detail on display but there’s a slight softness to it. Close-ups, medium shots etc. reveal an engrossing amount of fine detail, but the wide shots all seem a tad softer than they should, as if the movie theater’s projector focus ring needs just a hair-thin adjustment. That said, the disc still benefits enormously from the huge amount of fine detail visible throughout the film. The voluminous special effects sequences, especially in the last half of the film, calls for an unending amount of fast movement in the frame, either the movement of the boat, the camera, the characters or the waves etc. The authoring is flawless in this department, with nary a digital artifact in sight.

The Dolby Digital Plus audio (via analog outputs) is perfection. Its stunning level of clarity and presence gives the detailed sound mix an incredible feeling of verisimilitude and enhances the gripping, white-knuckle suspense of the last half of the film. It’s the kind of sound effects mix one typically categorizes as only possible in the theatrical experience, but in this case translates perfectly to the home theater. The full range of channels is constantly employed as the boat and its crew are beaten by punishing waves that blast from behind the audience and down through the front speakers, and the sounds of spray seemingly spatter the view. The excellent mix manages to balance the loud intensity of the effects without burying James Horner’s score, or the dialogue which is a tricky task. The rescue helicopter’s propellers and the deep boom of the slamming waves rattle the bass across the home theater. It’s worthwhile as a demo disk for the sound quality alone, but combined with the more detailed and compression-free imagery, makes it a must for selling your mates (or spouse) on the surround sound experience.

There are three audio commentaries included, which target different aspects of the film. Director Wolfgang Petersen fills his commentary with interesting stories on the development and production of the film, including the challenges of shooting in Gloucester where the real events were filmed. He’s moderated by an uncredited J. M. Kenny who peppers the track with worthwhile questions for Petersen. In the Sebastian Junger track, he tells of his involvement with the story, how his novel came about and his research into the lives of the real-life characters. There’s the odd quiet moment, and an unheard moderator occasionally fires off questions that Junger answers. It’s a worthwhile discussion on who the real people were and where the film embellishes through necessity or for dramatic purposes. Visual Effects Supervisor Stefan Fangmeier and Visual Effects Producer Helen Ostenberg Elswit provide a track discussing the various techniques involved with bringing the challenging story to life. They are charismatic speakers, but it’s naturally more of interest to those interested in the Visual Effects field. The HBO First Look documentary is more substantial than the usual 30 min pre-release reel and offers some very interesting behind the scenes footage, news clips and interviews not included on the other featurettes. The rest of the featurettes are brief, but combined they all provide an interesting glimpse into the making of the film. Combined with the commentaries, they address any questions you’re likely to have.

Overall, it makes for a satisfying, near perfect demo and an excellent package for fans of the film.

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