Not enough fish

Film - Jonathan Romney on an imperfect adaptation of Sebastian Junger's bestseller

The cast of The Perfect Storm includes George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, but the real star, Warner Bros wishes to stress, is the storm itself - a digitally generated force 12 inspired by the one which struck the coast of Massachusetts in 1991. This is one of those rare showbiz occasions, outside British sport, where the bad weather gets top billing. The last time this happened was in the spectacularly silly whirlwind movie Twister, and, although The Perfect Storm is better and more spectacular, it doesn't offer anything to equal the earlier film's flying cows, the jolliest apparition in a decade of digitals. What Wolfgang Petersen's film has going for it is wind and water, tons of water - some real, some whipped up out of pixels, but enough to make you feel decidedly clammy when the end credits finally heave into view.

What the film lacks is drama. Petersen ought to be good at waterlogged tension - he made the German submarine nailbiter Das Boot - but, for all its tossing and raging, The Perfect Storm never quite sets the pulse racing. This is largely because Petersen's main, if not sole, objective is to create a rip-roaring waterpark ride, yet he is obliged to pay lip-service to heart-wrenching human drama, and therefore spends the first half hour setting up his characters' assorted quirks and vulnerabilities before we even get a whiff of the briny.

The film, based on Sebastian Junger's non-fiction bestseller of the same title, begins by paying due homage to the fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and its generations of mariners lost at sea. Gloucester seems like a fine place: as the snub-nosed fishing boats pull in at the start, a young lad waves from the shore. It is a regular place, too, with a rickety but cheery bar where the rugged wayfarers can sip their beer, enjoy a quick tumble in the upstairs room, and maybe the odd fist fight, with Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox.

Petersen makes brisk work of the characters and their sketchy motivations. Clooney, as wooden as ever, is the hard-boiled skipper who is losing his touch; Wahlberg and Diane Lane are the tender young couple who plan to set up house once this last catch is in; snaky William Fichtner and the inimitably pug-faced John C Reilly hate each other's guts; Allen Payne is the black sexual athlete with about three lines of script. Now can we please weigh anchor? Not before Cap'n Clooney has regaled his fellow skipper Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with an elegiac little speech about the pleasures of putting out to sea, which you just know will be poignantly reprised during the final sunrise.

When Bill Wittliff's script isn't overwritten, as it is here, it's so underwritten that its choice lines feel dredged up from Davy Jones's locker. I suppose they serve their purpose - you know where you are with a weatherman who scans the charts and mutters: "This doesn't look good"; or a weekend yachtsman cheerfully announcing: "We'll be in Bermuda in no time." Before the ship is far out to sea, one man is yanked overboard with a hook in his hand, a shark lands on deck and chomps another crewman's leg, and some wiseacre tersely speculates that these might be bad omens - ah well, they say it takes a lot to spook a Gloucesterman.

Industrial Light and Magic's special effects, it must be said, are pretty imposing, occasionally transcending the merely convincing to become weirdly poetic. I especially liked the unreal but eerily glossy panoramas where the camera appears to scan the looming horizon, and the aerial shot of Hurricane Grace, a big swirling doughnut of vapours. But the overpopulated narrative makes the drama far too diffuse. Not only do we keep skipping back to the worried folks at home, but there are also subplots involving the confused yachters and a group of brave air-sea rescue chaps, whose perils it is hard to care much about, simply because we don't know who they are beneath their helmets. There's also the sketchiest inclusion of Christopher McDonald as the TV meteorologist, who takes a gleeful but scholarly interest in events as only a landlubber could.

All this severely dilutes the interest we take in Clooney's crew, whose personal dramas have been flagged from the start as the film's emotional core. What Petersen should have done, perhaps, was play up the ensemble casting and let the characters be colourful puppets to toss around, in the style of the Seventies disaster movies this so resembles. There's even a role that would have suited Ernest Borgnine - you can see him as the old salt sagely commenting on Clooney's venturing forth to remote and perilous waters: "The Flemish Cap - lots of fish, and lots of weather."

"No antenna, no radio," spits Clooney as things get hairy. "We're back in the 19th century!" Would that this were so - a bit of the epic amplitude of Herman Melville or Victor Hugo wouldn't have gone amiss. We don't get it, alas, until what must count, in sea-going movies, as the money shot, as Clooney, bellowing like Ahab, pushes his boat up a vertical wall of water. But overall, there's little metaphysical grandeur, and not quite enough insight into the hardtack business of grizzled toilers risking their necks to bring in the catch. Lots of water, then, but perhaps not enough fish.

The Perfect Storm (12) is on nationwide release