That sinking feeling

Perfect Storm (12) | Director: Wolfgang Petersen, Starring: George Clooney,Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio | 129 Mins
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The Independent Culture

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

There's strange weather on the way. Based on the bestseller by Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm conjures an elemental freakishness the likes of which we haven't seen in a cinema since that cow was whirled through the air by a tornado in Twister.

Junger's book recounted the events of October 1991, when a boat named the Andrea Gail set out from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to make a late-season fishing run and got caught in "the storm of the century", a monumentally violent collision between a hurricane and two separate weather fronts.

In one way the material is a direct mailshot to Hollywood. Filmgoers relish a catastrophe, and the prospect of making waves as vertigi- nous as a cliff-face and rain so thick you could drown in it, must have been irresistible to the computer-effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic.

On the other hand, there's the difficulty of shooting a film on water: long before they reached the screen the names Waterworld and Titanic became synonymous with exorbitant budgets, mutinous sets and massive delays. Spielberg long ago discovered the perils of working on water with Jaws, and reportedly turned down The Perfect Storm when it was offered. Not so the German-born Wolfgang Petersen, who accumulated experience of filming on (and indeed under) the sea during his 1981 U-Boat epic Das Boot. If anyone deserved a shot at skippering this one, it was him.

In a prologue Petersen scrolls down a memorial dedicated to all the men of Gloucester who have lost their lives at sea - some 10,000 over the centuries, an indication of why fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the United States. Committed to this long and risky tradition are the ship's captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) and a five-man crew, bold sons of check-shirted hardiness who prepare for the next day's trip by chugging beers in the harbour-front bar and consoling their womenfolk.

One such is Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), reluctantly tearing himself away from girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane) and thus condemning her to the periphery of the plot, where she has to make do with anxious mumming; Lane's name, high on the cast list along with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Cherry Jones and Karen Allen, had encouraged us to think that the film would feature one or two meaty roles for women - alas, in vain. They're left either stranded on the shore or reduced to gargling the waves as minor (very minor) storm victims, an insult to their talent, of course, but what can you do?

Once the Andrea Gail starts to crest the ocean, the picture looks to find its sea legs. Much depends on the presence of Clooney as the grizzled salt who's respected and feared by the men; he plays Tyne as a Man of Few Words, as if mindful of the panel marked BILGE MONITOR behind the captain's wheel. He has a misty-eyed speech about the joy of sailing around "Rocky Neck and Ten Pound Island" and spotting various seabirds on route, which aims for Hemingway but sounds more like a limp imitation of Van Morrison's "Coney Island". Later we discover his courage and decisiveness, but it never quite raises his character out of the generic.

Of the crew Wahlberg and John C Reilly make the strongest impression, closely followed by the swordfish they spear and haul thrashing over the boat's deck; neither actor, I'd guess, has wrestled with so much slippery flesh since their porn-star police duo in Boogie Nights. All the while, the movie has been girding itself for the big Third Act: weather reports have been offering hints which now billow into ominous certainties. The TV weatherman, no Michael Fish, spots the danger early doors but then ruins his good work by trying to be Michael Buerk ("It would be a disaster of epic proportions. It would be... the perfect storm"). Pompous reconstructions ahoy! And so the massed ranks of special effects are finally let out to play. The skies turn the colour of pewter, the rain starts blowing sideways, the wind scoops 100-foot canyons out of the waves; at times the boat seems to be surfing down a mountainside. What this means in human terms is that thousands of gallons of water get thrown over the cast, who have to resort to yelling just to make themselves heard. At one point Clooney has to clamber along the rigging to blowtorch an anchor cable that's causing havoc, but the heroics feel so stagey we might as well be watching him in a dream.

Petersen tries to vary the action by switching from the Andrea Gail to the helicopter rescue team that's gone to help a capsized yacht, but while there's a certain you-are-there excitement, a strange air of impersonality dominates the proceedings. Who are these people? What has brought them here?

The script, by Bill Wittliff, is part-fictionalised, and by the final reel it's only part-audible. When yet another wave bursts against the cabin window and Clooney (or was it Wahlberg?) shouts "That was nuthin!", we don't feel relief, still less an urge to wahoo on their behalf, and that's because the weather seems to have been invested with more character than they have.

It may be that when the special-effects people moved in, the priorities of the film became confused: both in the eye of the storm and in the eye of the camera, the human element got lost.