No movie so far this summer leaves its potential more frustratingly unrealized than The Perfect Storm. In 1997, journalist Sebastian Junger published a best-selling nonfiction account of the six-man swordboat crew of the Andrea Gail and the freak collision of three storm systems that took the boat down off the coast of Newfoundland in 1991. The material's personal dramas and pounding ten-story waves seemed a natural for the movies. With George Clooney aboard as Billy Tyne, the stalwart captain of the Andrea Gail, and director Wolfgang Petersen — a master of sea (Das Boot) and sky (Air Force One) — playing skipper behind the camera, audiences had a right to expect technical and emotional highs.
It's shocking, considering the talent involved, that The Perfect Storm looks and feels fake. The sinking feeling starts early, with the swordfish. Here's a movie about six guys from Gloucester, Massachusetts, who make their living trying to catch one of the most dangerous game fish in the world. The inert fishies here look like refugees from frozen foods (actually, they're animatronic creatures with what appear to be motorized tail fins that flap wanly on cue). It's best to forget the cheesy shark that washes aboard, teeth gnashing, like an outtake from Jaws. Another lesson not learned from Spielberg's exemplary adventure: Jaws isn't about the shark, it's about the people — that's why it works.
The Perfect Storm stays rigidly focused on creating the best storm a $140 million budget can buy. As for the digital effects, they look, well, digital — pristine, processed and lifeless. You might say the same thing about Gladiator, still the summer's best movie, but that film's digital re-creation of the Roman Colosseum lets us in on the joke. It's fantasy time. The Perfect Storm involves actual people who died at sea. A sense of reality is essential, and it's sorely lacking. The actors, including Mark Wahlberg as Tyne's shipmate Bobby Shatford, are clearly bouncing around in a studio water tank while the wizards at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic computerize a storm around them. The ILM work is solid, but it's not inspired in a way that might make us suspend disbelief.
All this wouldn't matter as much if the film had a soul. But it's at the level of human relationships that The Perfect Storm fails most profoundly. Junger's book caught the details that defined the lives of these fishermen. Clooney's quiet strength and Wahlberg's piercing vulnerability can't make up for a Bill Wittliff script that trades in stereotypes. Wittliff has written other piss-poor movies (Legends of the Fall, The Cowboy Way), but here he stingily sends his crew to sea with one characteristic apiece: Murph (John C. Reilly) is stubborn; Sully (William Fichtner) is hot- tempered; Bugsy (John Hawkes) is a likable loser; Alfred (Allen Payne) is a sex-crazed Jamaican. The ex-wives and girlfriends in their lives are barely an afterthought, except for Bobby's girl, Chris Cotter (lovely Diane Lane, struggling to sound Boston), and Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a skipper with more luck at fishing than Billy. Mastrantonio deserves better than to radio in with the obvious: "Bobby, you're heading right for the middle of the monster."
Yes, the monster does generate a fair share of thrills, despite the digital artifacting. And there's a storm subplot, involving an Air Force chopper rescue of three sailboat passengers (Bob Gunton, Karen Allen and Cherry Jones), that will pin you to your seat. But don't ask who those passengers are, because this movie won't tell you. It will, however, stoop to box-office temptations, such as a drowning man — shades of Leo — professing his undying love for a woman while her image is superimposed on the screen and the soppy score from James Horner (Titanic) goes on and on. Near the end, after a church service in memory of the dead, we hear someone quote Billy in testimony to the fear-defying joy that drives a fisherman to the sea. Talk about too little too late. The words are poignant, immediate and heartfelt — everything this machine-tooled movie is not.