Fortunately, going to the movies seems to suddenly qualify as an intellectual accomplishment on a par with reading a book or devoting time to serious thought. It's not that the movies have gotten any more strenuous, it's just that a lot of people are as lazy as I am, and together we've agreed to lower the bar. -David Sedaris
Even Jan "Speed" DeBont had enough sense to open Twister with a tornado. A big one. Accompanied by roaring thunder, a score of moaning strings, and plenty of salt-of-the-earth types in mortal peril. Because even the lamest of blockbusters have to deliver. Early. Fast. Hard.
But in a summer filled with the usual explosive fare like M:I-2 and The Patriot (Dirty Harry vigilantism tarted up with wigs and history), director/producer Wolfgang "Das Boot" Petersen is an artist (a pretentious Teutonic artist, but an artist).
So moviegoers who expect (quite correctly) that the star of the Perfect Storm is purely meteorological in nature have to content themselves with a few flashes of lightning until the actual event shows up some 90 minutes in. Though there is some very choppy water, and a little rain, at around the first half hour. Also, a few weather bulletins.
Petersen spends/wastes at least an hour showing us seagulls and sunsets, trying to establish the crew's "personalities" - which unfortunately, results in a set of insulting "stereotypes" about as interesting as "Dusty, the wacky stormchaser" (indie wonder Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early embarrassment) in the aforementioned Twister (remember, "IT'S COMING!!")
Because Petersen's tendency to turn a high-tech disaster movie into a tearjerker works against everything The Perfect Storm has going for it cinematically. Namely: The Storm.
The men of the Andrea Gail undoubtedly had interesting stories - but Petersen doesn't appear to have been privy to any of them. And while Sebastian Junger's book did present compelling synopses of the various human dramas, his book was actually long on adventure and physics and very short on dialogue (for fairly obvious reasons, once you know the fate of the various players). His mariner-like commitment to accuracy resulted in a level of detail generally not seen outside the Monkey Rope chapter of Moby Dick.
But what worked impressively for the book is not what works on celluloid.
Junger also had the time and space to tell multiple stories - not just of the Andrea Gail, but of nearly everyone else who was trapped out in the North Atlantic during the storm. (The Andrea Gail segment concludes fairly early in the book, actually.)
It's easy to see why Petersen didn't want to relinquish some of those dramas (like that of the pararescue jumpers), but it makes for a loose, sprawling and sometimes confusing narrative.
Focusing just on the main plot, we have: George Clooney, as Billy Tyne, stoic swordboat captain. Charismatic as he can be just standing around, breathing in and out, somebody should've thought about giving him some lines that didn't sound like they'd been recently and poorly translated into English (like the absurd tone poem-like monologue he gives as they head out to sea). Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg resurrects a little of his old Boston accent for his turn as Bobby Shatford, a working class guy who loves fishing and needs the money, but just wants to get back to his girl, Chris (played by Diane Lane). In the book, they have a rather... hardscrabble relationship (to put it nicely). Here, Petersen's imbued them with all the doomed nobility of Romeo and Juliet.
The rest of the crew would be almost interchangeable onscreen, but for the artificial tension played up between "Murph" (played by John C. Reilly, Boogie Nights and Magnolia alum) and "Sully" (William Fichtner). Because fishing - in and of itself - isn't really dramatic enough to sustain the 90 minutes it takes for the storm to get going, Sully and Murph's conflict must simmer, erupt, and then resolve itself in heartwarming yet dramatic fashion. Which, of course, it does.
Poor Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio must come along for the ride as Linda Greenlaw, captain of the Hannah Boden- who seems to exist in the movie for the sole purpose of issuing storm warnings to the Andrea Gail ("you're headed right into the middle of The Monster," she brays) and to stir up a contrived flirtation with Clooney, where she tells him of her conflicted desires to settle down or to stay on the boat. In real life, Greenlaw is the only woman swordboat captain - a spectacular achievement in an industry dominated and owned by men. In the movie, she's reduced to a "Women Who Love Men Who Love Fish" caricature, and Junger's book certainly gave no hint of any romantic inclination between Tyne and Greenlaw, real or imagined. (Tyne's last known call before setting sail was actually to his ex-wife, asking about his kids.)
With no compelling narrative - beyond doom and Tyne's losing streak with the fish - that leaves the rest of the movie to ride on about a half hour's worth of usually spectacular visuals. With a few exceptions.
For those who care, for example, no live fish were harmed in the making of this movie. And it shows. The four animatronic swordfish and 100 or so models are about as realistic as the giant octopus Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi has to "wrestle" in Ed Wood. Worst of all, the synthetic shark that hops on deck and snacks on Marky Mark (before Clooney authoritatively, if implausibly, dispatches it with a shotgun) bears a disconcerting resemblance to Jabber Jaw.
Clearly, Petersen wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wants George Lucas-style technology (which he successfully procured from ILM), and notwithstanding those stupid fish, the 100-foot wave is a marvel of digital imagery. There's a reason all the trailers and movie posters feature the storm, and not the movie stars. But, he also wants each character to be more an icon than a man.
Why else would poor Clooney be forced to bark lines like, "I always find the fish. Always. And I will this time."? In a movie where he only gets maybe a half dozen paragraphs of dialogue, it's a shame this had to be one of them.
A lot has been made of whether or not moviegoers will show up when they know the ending. In terms of box office, that didn't hurt Titanic (unfortunately). It probably won't hurt The Perfect Storm either. Critics are already lining up to praise it.
Maybe filmgoers and critics just want to be sensitive to the Gloucester families who still live the aftermath of this storm. That's laudable.
But it seems doubtful that misdirected compassion was what wrecked Petersen's approach. Who ever accused Hollywood of excessive sensitivity? Hell, it's not like James Cameron doesn't wake up every day and thank God for the iceberg that sent all those men, women, and children to their watery grave precisely so he could go on to be the "KING OF THE WORLD."
The acting's good (these guys all make the most of some pretty wretched dialogue); the effects are unparalleled; and the book was irresistible - it's easy to see what attracted everyone to the project. Petersen just made bad choices. In his ham-fisted, clod-like attempts to "humanize" the crew, he has instead cheapened their tragedy and inadvertently condescended to them.
He didn't find the fish.