The Perfect Storm Sputters Away

George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, William Fichtner, John Hawkes. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. 130 minutes. 2000. Warner Home Video 18584. PG-13. $24.98.

Director Wolfgang Petersen's hit of last summer dramatizes the story of a Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing-boat crew that perished in a rare convergence of storm fronts in the North Atlantic in fall 1991. This account, based on the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, is a story that lends itself well to the big screen. It has action in spades; conflict between man and nature, man and man, and man and himself; romance; and deep despair. It's also a great platform for the latest in computer-generated effects. So why did it leave audiences with a sinking feeling?

While the individual stories of the six crewmembers of the doomed deep-sea fishing boat, Andrea Gail, were explored in detail in the book, the 130-minute movie brushes by these men in a rush to get to the special effects. We get passing introductions to each—a bit more for Clooney's captain Billy Tyne and Wahlberg's Bobbie Shatford—but not enough to invest ourselves in them emotionally. Together with an ending that's never in doubt for those who remember the actual incident, or who have read one too many reviews of the film, The Perfect Storm amounts to a wade in the shallows when we could have had a good swim in something deeper and more revealing.

If you're looking for action, however, this film will give you all you can handle—maybe more. Its second half never lets up, bouncing between the hapless Andrea Gail, a small sailboat called the Mistral, and a Coast Guard rescue team working to save both crews at the risk of their own lives. In fact, it's a little overwhelming; the subplot involving the rescuers seems tacked on, serving only to draw even more attention away from the already too shallow main protagonists.

Some of the special effects look obviously fake, particularly those involving the rescue aircraft. Something about the way the foreground objects were blended with the background CGI (computer-generated images) just doesn't quite fool the eye. Maybe it's the inherent difficulty in the computer animation of water. Industrial Light & Magic has made great strides here, and the producers deserve credit for trying, but there's still a way to go in that department. It doesn't help that this DVD is so sharp that even the smallest anomalies in the effects sequences are readily visible.

The Perfect Storm is an audio dynamo with a nicely layered surround track: ocean swells, water crashing on decks, even the wind cutting between the Andrea Gail's outriggers seem to come alive. Couple this with James Horner's inspired score, and viewers are in for a real aural experience.

Commentaries in triplicate lead the package of extras. There's a lot to say about an effects-driven movie based on a true story, and the disc allows the most relevant parties to have their say. The director's track is well done: Petersen is interviewed by the DVD producer, a conversational approach that works well for the heavily accented veteran and solicits some interesting and humorous points, such as the fact that "no fish were harmed during the making of the film." He also mentions the multitudes of CGI in the movie and says some scenes just didn't exist in the real world, period.

Even more engaging is the track by Junger, who knows the subject of The Perfect Storm better than anyone alive. He's a pleasure to listen to as he recalls his research for the book and provides background for the central characters that didn't make it into the film. Finally, there's a track by two members of the visual effects team, who offer a peek behind the magician's curtain.

Also included is a fascinating HBO First Look documentary. Much of the movie was shot using a full-size swordboat mounted on a 360-degree gimbal against a blue screen. The tank it was shot in was so large that Petersen had to travel on a raft each time he needed to give the actors direction. It's fun to see how all the elements were integrated, even if the results aren't entirely convincing, and to hear how a seasick Wahlberg nearly vomited on Clooney.

There are a few other surprises that I won't give away here. All told, they're enough to make this disc worth adding to your collection, if only to avoid the late fees you're sure to incur on a two-day rental.

Note to Warner: It's good that you include anti-theft devices in your snapcases, but does your sticker announcing that fact have to be so difficult to remove? It shouldn't take 10 minutes to open a DVD.