Batten down your hopes: tedium ahoy!

The Perfect Storm (12) <i>Wolfgang Petersen, 129 mins</i>
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The Independent Culture

Although François Truffaut is now remembered exclusively as a film-maker, he was also, for several years, one of the sharpest of film critics, possessed of an uncanny knack for airing great, simple truths which were always there for the thinking of but which no one had thought of before him.

Although François Truffaut is now remembered exclusively as a film-maker, he was also, for several years, one of the sharpest of film critics, possessed of an uncanny knack for airing great, simple truths which were always there for the thinking of but which no one had thought of before him.

It was Truffaut, for example, who first made the crucial distinction between the desire to see a film and the desire to watch it. There exist films, he proposed, which lots of people want to see but, once inside the cinema, fewer and fewer want to go on watching; others to which few are initially attracted but which those few continue to watch with increasing, not decreasing, fascination. Claire Denis's recent Beau Travail is an example of the latter category, Wolfgang Petersen's new The Perfect Storm of the former. (One might add, for the record, that there exists a third desire, one left unpostulated by Truffaut, the desire to see - and watch - a film again.)

It isn't hard to understand why millions might be tempted to see The Perfect Storm, which is so far the major success story of the American moviegoing summer. It feels like good value for money (under £10 for something which cost more than five million times that much to make). It's an adaptation of Sebastian Junger's international bestseller (a book which only I seem never to have heard of). And its central set-piece storm, computer-enhanced as it often visibly is, allows us all to indulge in what another French critic, André Bazin, termed the Nero complex, the vicarious enjoyment of on-screen devastation.

Yet it's equally hard to imagine many of those millions emerging from the cinema enhaloed by a glow of satisfaction commensurate with the buzz of anticipation with which they entered it. For the depressing truth is that The Perfect Storm - based on an apparently true story about a small Massachusetts fishing boat caught in the worst storm the American Atlantic coast has known in a century - is worse than bad, it's boring.

The first hour is boring because it's practically all who-cares exposition, apprising us of the hackneyed problems and preoccupations of cipher-like characters played by hardly less cipher-like actors: George Clooney, the pauper's Clark Gable; Mark Wahlberg, who has never been as cinegenic as when he was encumbered with an eye-fetching prosthetic appendage in Boogie Nights; Diane Lane, the same Diane Lane as five years ago except five years older; and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, leathery yet sensitive, made-up, as ever, to look unmade-up. The final 10 minutes - a mawkish coda - are boring because the film is to all intents and purposes over and we're itching to go home. And the storm itself, I have to say, eventually becomes boring because it's overlong and samey and, even though incredibly spectacular, so incoherently shot and edited that it's next to impossible to know what the crew are up to at any given instant as they clamber over decks and shin up rigging and do whatever else sailors do in a crisis.

There are, however, two further issues worth raising in relation to what is, after all, the movie's raison d'être and virtual sole selling-point.

First, state-of-the-art they may be, but the computer-generated images of 180-feet-high waves and 120 mph winds are still obstinately lacking in what the French term un effet de réel - a reality effect. There's something a trifle too painterly about them, a surreal sheen that can occasionally be beautiful, but beautiful in an incongruous, faintly cartoonish way. If they are reminiscent of anything, it's one of those executive toys in which a miniature sea-storm is whipped up by the perpetual to-and-fro rocking of a transparent oblong case; or else of the foamy breakers unwittingly conjured up by the hapless Mickey Mouse in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of Fantasia. (During the storm, the best-known tune of Dukas's scherzo kept running through my head, which was handy, as it helped to block out James Horner's repulsively soupy background score.)

Second, watching The Perfect Storm made me realise that it's the big Hollywood entertainments that are the genuinely minimalist films. What's Petersen's movie about? A motley group of fishermen go to sea and are engulfed by a monstrous typhoon. That's it. That's all there is. So where's the beef? As I struggled to stay awake, it occurred to me that you can usually find more narrative meat to chew on in a Chantal Akerman psychodrama set in an unfurnished single room and filmed on a budget of tuppence-ha'penny.

Okay, so Akerman's films tend not to boast cyclones or tornadoes or any other variety of meteorological convulsion. But in the Hollywood genre movies of the past, the movies of Hawks and Walsh and Curtiz, not to mention the great adventure stories of the 19th century by Stevenson, Conrad and the like, a sea-storm was just one element, and by no means the most prominent, in narratives that were crammed with incident. To construct an entire movie around a single natural phenomenon, and The Perfect Storm is only the latest in an increasingly lengthy series of such Johnny-one-note blockbusters - that truly is minimalism.

And, if I may end by quoting yet another Frenchman, I'm beginning to wonder whether the most prescient comment ever made about the medium I thought I loved was that attributed to Auguste Lumiÿre in the wake of the very first public screening of a moving film in 1895. The cinema, said Lumiÿre, a real visionary, would never amount to anything more than a freaky funfair attraction.

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