Several years ago, a coworker and I were sitting around chewing the fat when, for whatever reason, he started into a story that literally caused my jaw to drop to the floor (okay, perhaps not to the floor, but at least it dropped open). Whereas I grew up in 1960s and '70s era suburban America, he did so in Vietnam.
At the "ripe old age" of his middle teens, he was then "drafted" in the middle of the night into the Vietnamese Army (after the fall of Saigon) and sent to the jungles of Cambodia where he fought for months and lived off nothing but canned corn. Understandably having enough of that, he went AWOL and become one of the many "boat people" who tried to flee from that country.
On the seas for several weeks, part of which were without food or water, he and his companions were intercepted by a Soviet freighter whose crew fortunately gave them water, food and the correct directions to Hong Kong. They obviously made it and he was subsequently placed in an adoptive American home. At this point, you may be wondering what in the heck any of this has to do with this week's release of "The Perfect Storm." Well, I was getting to that.
Of all the horrible things he obviously endured, the absolute worst experience to him was being tossed about in his tiny boat at sea during a typhoon and facing waves that were several stories tall. Neither the jungle fighting nor the horrible thirst and hunger could match the sheer terror brought on by looking up and repeatedly seeing monstrous and gargantuan waves preparing to squash them like bugs and send them to the bottom of the sea. Due solely to that maritime nightmare, he stated he wouldn't make that trek again if he had to, no matter the repercussions.
As odd as it may sound, I wanted to experience - albeit, secondhand - such terror in director Wolfgang Petersen's film about the real-life fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, and its run-in with what was called a "perfect storm." Based on true-life events that occurred in 1991 and were then fictionalized in Sebastian Junger's 1997 best-selling novel "The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea," the film does have its share of suspenseful and riveting moments.
It also features what have to be the most realistic looking ocean waves ever created by a computer. Yet, for all of the CGI effects provided by Industrial Lights & Magic, the countless buckets of water thrown or otherwise blown onto the set and actors, and what must have been a miserably wet shooting experience, you don't really care that much about what happens to the various characters that are put into harm's way.
From what I've heard, Junger's original novel is a terrific and taut - if rather speculative - recounting of what may have happened to the crew of the Andrea Gail. No doubt, much of that was probably because the reader had a chance to get to know the characters, grow to like or at least be interested in them, and then subsequently worry about their safety.
While screenwriter Bill Wittliff ("Legends of the Fall," "The Cowboy Way") goes through the perfunctory motions of introducing the characters and their various personal situations and/or current dilemmas, he and director Petersen ("Air Force One," "In the Line of Fire") never allow nor provide us with enough information about the characters to care about them, despite a half hour or so of related exposition that opens the film.
That's a glaring and detrimental fault for a film like this because if the viewer doesn't worry about the characters (and that's about all one can do with a story like this - particularly in the 2nd half), the picture just won't work that well.
It certainly doesn't help that the film's subjects are forced to act stupidly (those left behind act as if the crew is headed off to war rather than a routine fishing job - and that's before anyone's knowledge of the storm) and speak some of the most stilted and awkward dialogue to come down the cinematic pike since, well, that other nature-based, special effects extravaganza, "Twister."
Even more so than was the case in that film, one never sees the characters here as real people. Instead, they come off more like another special effect element thrown in to make the overall visual picture more interesting and appealing to the viewer. In addition, and due to that lack of a true human touch, one is then forced to focus on the effects and begin questioning, "I wonder how they did that?"
It's a film one can certainly admire from a technical standpoint, but not as a great, overall moviegoing experience. Had this film been produced by Universal, I could easily see "The Perfect Storm" attraction joining "Earthquake," "Jaws" and "Back to the Future" at their theme parks, with it being just as technically amazing but emotionally empty as those attractions.
While said effects are impressive from a technical and technological standpoint, they don't always look convincingly real. Unlike a film such as "Jaws" that seemed realistic enough from a location standpoint (meaning one easily believed the three men were out at sea at the mercy of the unrealistic looking shark), rarely, if ever, did I think or believe that the characters and their boat here were actually out at sea, in such a storm. One could also obviously tell the difference between such special effects shots and the rest that were obviously filmed on a very wet soundstage.
The film also suffers from containing a subplot - if you will - about a coast guard team's efforts to rescue three sailboat occupants and then some of their own from the storm. While such scenes are occasionally more riveting than that dealing with the fishing boat, they feel incongruous with the main plotline, not to mention coming off as feeling shortchanged from what must have been better explored - and to a much greater depth - in the novel.
Perhaps more related footage ended up on the cutting room floor, as the likes of notable and recognizable actors such as Bob Gunton ("The Shawshank Redemption," "Patch Adams") and Karen Allen ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Starman") are ultimately wasted in what are essentially small, throwaway roles.
Despite Petersen's proficiency at creating suspenseful moments, the missing emotional element robs such scenes and the overall film of what could have been some great and memorable moments. As such, the film never grips the audience as did Spielberg's "Jaws" or in the way that James Cameron did in his peril at sea films, "Titanic" and "The Abyss."
That comes as something of a surprise since Petersen did that so well in the critically lauded "Das Boot," a far more riveting and successful "at sea" picture. Without that personalized, human element found in all of those other films, this one feels more like a special effects experiment along the lines of a "Gee, look what we can do" presentation.
As such, the film's flesh and blood components don't have much of a chance at measuring up to their computer-generated counterparts, in either a physical or artistic fashion. After the half hour or so of having their characters introduced to us, the likes of George Clooney ("Three Kings," "Out of Sight"), Mark Wahlberg ("Three Kings," "Boogie Nights") and John C. Reilly ("Magnolia," "For Love of the Game") can't do much more than yell, scream, look scared or concerned, or simply try to prevent being washed away when not worrying about mildewing due to the constantly wet conditions.
William Fichtner ("Passion of Mind," "Drowning Mona") appears in a forced and unnecessarily antagonistic role to another character, John Hawkes ("I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," "Blue Streak") can't do much with his role and Allen Payne ("A Price Above Rubies," "Jason's Lyric") is apparently present only to serve as the film's token "man of color" (since he doesn't do or say much else).
Meanwhile, the talented Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio ("The Abyss," "The Color of Money") is completely wasted in a solo role as another fishing boat captain, and even Diane Lane ("My Dog Skip," "A Walk on the Moon") isn't allowed to do much other than nervously pine away for her lover.
To be fair, the film does have its share of relatively well-staged, suspenseful and taut moments, and they do carry much of the picture, making most of it relatively easy to watch. Yet, after a while, the repetition of such perilous moments (that eventually wear down or begin to bore the viewer), the obvious fact that the crew really isn't at sea, and the lack of any true, discernible human or emotional dimension prevents the film from being as riveting and good as it could have been.
The storm of 1991 that spawned the maritime tragedy, subsequent novel and now this cinematic adaptation may have been "perfect," but this film certainly isn't. With more effort seemingly put into creating the storm effects than those related to human beings and thus having us care about their plight, "The Perfect Storm," may have some decent moments and effects, but in the end, it only ends up being all wet. As such, it rates as just a 5 out of 10.