Much Storm, Little Drang

Wolfgang Petersen's movie of Sebastian Junger's nonfiction best seller "The Perfect Storm" promises excitement on the high seas, and you can't say it doesn't deliver. Once the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail runs into heavy weather (about an hour into the story), and the special-effects waves begin to roil, there's little danger you'll be bored. Petersen ("Das Boot," "Air Force One") is an action pro, and he's been given control over all the computer-generated tricks that money can buy. As Hurricane Grace and two other weather fronts collide to generate this legendary 1991 storm, the movie tracks not just the crew of Billy Tyne's (George Clooney) fishing boat but a yacht caught in the treacherous drink, and the astonishing efforts of Air Force and Coast Guard rescue teams to pluck the small craft's three endangered sailors from the jaws of catastrophe.

Oddly, this helicopter rescue turns out to be the most thrilling episode in the film. What's strange is that we have no idea who these three minor characters--or their rescuers--are. It's an indication of what has gone wrong with Petersen's movie, which is at once spectacular and anemic. The discrepancy between the sophistication of the special effects and the rudimentary dramaturgy results in a $140 million film that may raise your blood pressure, but leaves the rest of you distinctly unengaged.

Something feels off from the get-go. The first half hour introduces us to the Andrea Gail's crew, their wives and girlfriends at the Crow's Nest, a Gloucester, Mass., bar, where they work off their tension with booze and sex. Petersen's doom-laden, portentous direction does not allow any of his fine actors (Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner) any naturalistic wriggle-room. Yes, they have a dangerous job, but the elegiac tone suggests they are going off to war rather than a fishing trip. The only way to explain how peculiarly everyone is acting is that they've all read Junger's book.

The script, credited to Bill Wittliff, is a blunt instrument. "This doesn't look good!" announces the alarmed TV weatherman: a fair indication of the screenplay's finesse. The human element is completely overwhelmed by the movie's need to cattle-prod the audience with regular doses of (often fictionalized) peril--sharks, fishing accidents, titanic waves. "The Perfect Storm" is impersonal Hollywood filmmaking at its most paradoxical. It keeps you glued to your seat, and leaves no aftertaste whatsoever.