"Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink."
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
It may not be a perfect movie, but "The Perfect Storm" is a perfect title. The movie is all about water and storms. In fact, it's practically all water and storms. By the time you're finished, you may be as waterlogged as the actors. But you can't say the movie doesn't deliver the goods as advertised, at least in its second half. You want a storm? You get a storm. And you want a storm in high-definition picture and sound? With Blu-ray you get that, too.
The story is based on a true incident from 1991 involving a Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, and the biggest storm in recorded history. The trouble with the screen adaptation of Sebastian Junger's book about the event, however, is that director Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "In the Line of Fire," "Air Force One," "Troy") has turned what might have been a riveting ninety-minute action yarn into an overlong, two-hour-plus melodrama. Not that audiences seemed to mind. The movie was one of the biggest moneymaking hits of 2000.
Because the filmmakers felt they needed to do more than just show a boat in a storm, they attempted to develop the personalities of the Andrea Gail's crew. The hope was that if we cared enough about them, the subsequent dangers they faced would be all the more suspenseful and harrowing. Unfortunately, the character development is shallow, creating people more akin to soap-opera denizens than high-seas adventurers.
Capt. Billy Tyne (George Clooney) gets the lead as skipper of the boat. Like Hemingway's protagonist in "The Old Man and the Sea," Tyne is a great fisherman now down on his luck and eager to prove his worth. For good measure, we're informed that he is divorced and has two kids he longs for. Clooney is earnest and stalwart in his portrayal. In Tyne's crew we find the expected character types. There's Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), a young man in love with a beautiful and devoted lady, Christina Cotter (Diane Lane). The first time we meet them, he's returning from a fishing trip and she jumps, literally, into his arms. You'd think he'd been away for years, as in the whaling days of the nineteenth century. The opposite of Bobby is Bugsy (John Hawkes), a kind of loner and outcast of love, who at last meets someone who seems to care for him just before the fateful voyage. Dale "Murph" Murphy (John C. Reilly) is a man divorced from his wife because of his love for the sea. David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtner) is a seeming tough guy the captain asks to come aboard at the last minute, who immediately engages Murph in a feud. And Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) is a fellow apparently from Jamaica and along for the ride. The least is made of him; I guess his color is supposed to say enough.
Of peripheral interest is Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a fellow fishing-boat captain and Tyne's good friend; and Bob Brown (Michael Ironside in one of his patented tough-guy roles), the hard-assed owner of the Andrea Gail, who expects big hauls on every outing. Each of these men and women is given a moment in the spotlight to generate some sympathy later on, but the first thirty or forty minutes of the film come off as largely tedious, awkward, and maudlin.
Finally, the boat sets out to sea, and things come around. Several preliminaries take place before the big storm, though, as if to warm us up. There's a shark attack on one of the fishermen, followed by a man overboard and a heroic rescue. It's fairly routine excitement and seems unnecessary to the film's central narrative. Clooney portrays Capt. Tyne as something of fanatic, a sort of Capt. Ahab of the sailfish set. He takes the boat farther and farther out to find the big catch. And fish they get. Plus a lot more than they bargained for. To get back to port they have to sail straight through the middle of the "storm of the century," the worst convergence of storms in the history of the world!
The storm sequences are what we pay our money for, and they assuredly pay off. For forty-five minutes, the action never stops, and it is awesome in the extreme. Computer graphics integrate seamlessly with live-action footage to create some intensely thrilling scenes. But this isn't enough. Interwoven with the dilemma of the Andrea Gail are the plights of a distressed sailboat and a downed rescue helicopter. I'm not sure these subplots add a lot to the main story; perhaps they're meant to relieve the tension of the Andrea Gail's situation by taking our mind momentarily off Capt. Tyne and his crew. The only thing that really concerned me about these incidents is that one of them, the sailboat episode, wastes the talents of one of my favorite actresses, Karen Allen, in a part that allows her to utter maybe two words and then look worried and frazzled.
James Horner, who must be getting tired of writing music for watery disasters ("Titanic"), underlines every plot point with a huge crescendo of horns and strings. The score is big and lush and Romantic and seems primarily designed to sell a ton of musical-soundtrack CDs.
One last reflection: Some of the actors appear to be affecting New England accents with varying degrees of success, and some, like Clooney, attempt no accent at all. The assumed accents can be more distracting than not.
Watching the movie in its regular, standard-definition format some years ago, I was not entirely happy with the video quality. I thought the colors were natural enough, but they seemed to alternate between bright and vivid and dull and faded. Then, too, the image delineation varied, sometimes sharply outlined and sometimes fuzzy and blurred, with a small amount of color bleed-through; there even seemed to be a slight haze at times over the screen. When the HD DVD came out, I was happier with the picture quality, although still not entirely satisfied.
This new Blu-ray, BD50, VC-1, 2.40:1 transfer looks about the same as I remember the HD DVD, with things still not quite as "perfect" as the storm they depict. The colors remain realistic, and in high def they are mostly clear and natural, with only a little of the haze I noticed earlier. There are also good, solid black levels present. Moreover, given the vast expanses of sky in the picture most of the time, there is no excessive grain to speak of. However, I continued to notice a degree of roughness about the picture. Definition remains so-so as well, with moments of softness coming and going. Detailing is fine, if somewhat murky in darker areas of the screen. There is a good deal of location shooting in the picture, which often conflicts with the very best video reproduction. In short, parts of this Blu-ray transfer exhibit some of best video characteristics I've seen from a high-definition disc, while other parts continue to suffer, so it's a variable proposition.
The Blu-ray edition's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is as clean and clear as ever. As before, though, during the first thirty minutes or so of the movie you hardly notice the sound is even in stereo. Then, during the storm, it becomes spectacular in all six channels, with waves crashing around the listening area, noises coming at the viewer from every direction. I suggested the following in my earlier review: Turn off your TV and your lights and completely darken the room; then just listen to the sounds of the storm. You'll find a taut bass, a transparent midrange, excellent clarity, strong impact, and an incisive transient response.
For extras, Warner Bros. offer basically the items found on their previous editions. First up, there are three audio commentaries: one with director Wolfgang Petersen; another with author Sebastian Junger; and a third with visual effects supervisor Steen Fangmeier and visual effects producer Helen Ostenberg Elswit. Play through all three and you will have extended your visit to the disc by another six hours, although I can't imagine too many casual home viewers doing such a thing. I listened to a few minutes of each commentary from time to time, and of the three I enjoyed Petersen's the most.
After those are three short documentaries, featurettes really: an "HBO First Look: The Perfect Storm," twenty minutes long, a look at behind-the-scenes goings on; another called "Witness to the Storm," four-and-a-half minutes, using interviews with people who actually witnessed the "storm of the century"; and a third, "Creating an Emotion: Composer James Horner at Work," about four minutes, taking us behind the film's music.
In addition, there is a four-minute photo montage called "Yours Forever"; a widescreen theatrical trailer; a soundtrack promo; and thirty-nine scene selections (but no chapter insert). Warners provide English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
The film concludes with a dedication "to the ten thousand Gloucestermen who died at sea since 1623." It's a touching tribute to a special people, a breed apart, men and women who had the sea in their blood. The storytelling in "The Perfect Storm" may be a bit wayward, but its heart and special effects are in the right place, and the Blu-ray transfer, particularly the sound, does it up proud.