A Familiar Crew Adrift in Turbulent Waters

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Warner Bros.

The Perfect Storm

Warner Bros. doesn't want reviewers to reveal the ending of The Perfect Storm. But Wolfgang Petersen's film isn't The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. It is based on a No. 1 nonfiction best seller. So you may already know what happened to Captain Billy Tyne and the crew of the Andrea Gail when it was caught in the famous North Atlantic maelstrom in 1991. And if you don't, does it matter? Knowing the ending didn't keep many moviegoers from seeing Titanic.

We're good sports; we don't want to spoil The Perfect Storm for the illiterati. But even the multiplex ignoscenti will get enough early clues to know that something wrong is in the wind. Gloucester gal (Diane Lane) to her sailor beau (Mark Wahlberg) before he boards the Andrea Gail: "Don't go, Bobby. I got a bad feelin'." Bobby: "Just one more time, I promise." This dialogue, familiar from a quillion melodramas, is always uttered by the sap about to step into the old dark house, the line of fire or the unforgiving sea. The Perfect Storm has more whispers of impending doom than all the witches in Macbeth.

Sebastian Junger's book could only speculate on the actions of Tyne and his men since, for reasons we can't explain, none of the crew would talk to him. The book was as much a history of commercial fishing as a story of one ship in a storm. So screenwriter Bill Wittliff has given a little storyline to Tyne (George Clooney) and the other Andrea Gailers--except for the black in the crew; he is allowed to provide only background nobility. Murph (John C. Reilly) gets all sniffly and teary bonding with his son. Sully (William Fichtner) is the class malcontent; Bugsy (John Hawkes), the likable loser. Bobby's in love. They are the generic guy group, swapping taunts and testosterone before they band as brothers to fight Rommel or Cochise.

All sea epics put their audience through this needless lifeboat drill, establishing characters whose main function is to be devoured or drowned. This applies here even to Billy, a tough loner with a sweet spot. Billy could be his own Bogart festival. At first he is the grizzled boat captain in To Have and Have Not; then he's greedy Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, risking his mates' lives to make the big score; finally, he nears the daft steeliness of The Caine Mutiny's Captain Queeg. Clooney bends his genial machismo to these darker shadings. But the movie needs him only to be a hero, an action figure with a genial scowl, expectorating cliches like "So this is the moment of truth. This is where we separate the men from the boys." He really says that.

But why bother carping about script lapses involving the crew (or an even sillier subplot of an upper-class twit on a yacht)? Humans are irrelevant to an effects extravaganza. The money shots come out of a computer or a studio tank. And though a storm is not a shark, the technical artistry plugs into a viewer's neurons to create a churning queasiness. You won't be moved. You will get wet.

What's true about The Perfect Storm is true of many effects epics: it's not a bad movie, except for the people.