Based on the best-selling novel by Sebastian Junger and inspired by true events, 'The Perfect Storm' tells the tale of the ill-fated Andrea Gail. In October 19991, the fishing boat would embark on a commercial fishing expedition at the tail-end of a dismal season. Stung by a weak summer catch and desperately in need of income to see them through the coming long winter months, the boat's blue collar crew set out off into barely charted waters hoping for a lucrative haul. But the crew will soon make a life-altering decision -- despite their devoted families waiting for them back home, the Gail would ignored warnings of an dire storm brewing, determined to prove their might against nature's primal fury. The results would be tragic.
Like its title, 'The Perfect Storm' is a movie that seems like the perfect recipe for Hollywood success. Based on a huge best-seller, backed by a major studio with a massive budget, loaded with A-list stars and graced with a story filled with realistic action and genuine pathos, it is hard to imagine it could ever have failed. (Really, when you have George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and John C. Reilly in your movie, how can you go wrong?) And it was a big hit in 2000, grossing nearly $300 million worldwide. However, six years on, 'The Perfect Storm's reputation is now a rather curious one, a film not so much regarded poorly as not regarded much at all. An efficient, well-made film, its emotional impact and resonance nevertheless have failed to endure beyond its end credits.
Watching 'The Perfect Storm' again on HD DVD for the first time since I saw it theatrically, I'm left with the same impression I had upon my initial viewing. It is certainly an entertaining film, commendable in its respect for the real-life men of the Andrea Gail, handsomely mounted, well acted and boasting plenty of effective action sequences,. Still, it left me feeling oddly cold, not quite tugging at my heartstrings the way it could have, and should have.
In hindsight, perhaps the hiring of 'Das Boot' director Wolfgang Petersen was not the best choice, however logical it must have seemed. Petersen has always been adept at staging action, especially involving water. Witness even his recent disappointing 'Poseidon,' which while a failure as a story contains some terrific disaster sequences. Alas, he brought that same misplaced focus on spectacle over intimacy to 'The Perfect Storm.' Time and again, we are taken away from the core moral and human dramas facing the crew of the Andrea Gail for dull if well-staged action setpieces (shark attacks crew member, Navy attempts rescue of fellow boat lost at sea, etc.). These parallel stories add little to not only the film's main narrative thrust but also generate little interest on their own. 'The Perfect Storm' often feels more like a TV movie in its plot construction than a focused, full-length motion picture. These subplots may have worked well on the page, but in a two-hour movie, they only distract us from the riveting core story of the men of the Andrea Gail and their families back home.
Yet I continue to admire 'The Perfect Storm,' because it is one of the few movies made by a major studio in recent memory that deals with the sensitive issue of class in our society. The decision the crew of the Andrea Gail ultimately made was informed largely by the men's station in life. The movie argues (none too subtly, I might add) that the harsh realities of America's capitalistic infrastructure and our culture's generally poor regard for the efforts of the blue collar worker contributed as much to the tragic fate of the Gail as any misjudgment by its crew. That makes 'The Perfect Storm' rather progressive, even subversive, for a major Hollywood movie. I still wish I had felt more for the men by the film's end, but 'The Perfect Storm' is still a film worth seeing. And it is certainly enjoyable, regardless of whatever debatable cinematic and social virtues it may possess.
Well, I hate to say it, but 'The Perfect Storm' is the first time I've been genuinely disappointed in an HD DVD. While I haven't been blown away by every release on the format so far, most more or less have met my general expectations. So perhaps I was just hoping for more from the transfer on 'The Perfect Storm' -- it just doesn't offer the level of upgrade I wanted compared to the standard DVD release of the film. Not that this disc looks poor, it just doesn't look that spectacular.
First, the positives. The source material looks to be in good shape, with no print anomalies or defects present. Blacks are also nice and solid, and contrast pretty good. Colors are also naturally rendered (though not nearly as well saturated and eye-popping as I had hoped). The transfer is also indicative of the HD DVD format's ability to handle rapid action quite well; there are no instances of blockiness or pixelization, which is a problem that often hampers over-the-air and terrestrial broadcasts of HD-based material.
Unfortunately, none of those plusses can offset my biggest gripes with this transfer, which is that the image does not look all that detailed for most of its runtime, and also appears quite soft. I'm used to HD material looking three-dimensional, or at least boasting considerable visible depth. 'The Perfect Storm' looked pretty flat to me throughout, more akin to standard DVD quality than HD. I also was surprised that it didn't look sharper. Most shots appear too misty and soft-focus. Granted, this image looks far from terrible, but it just seems so... average. And I just don't expect that on HD DVD. Call me cranky, but I was disappointed with this one.
Though the video on this disc is a bit lacking, you certainly can't say the same about the audio. 'The Perfect Storm' is only the third title I've reviewed (along 'Training Day' and 'The Phantom of the Opera') that includes a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, but it might have been the one I was most excited to hear, simply because it is such a huge-budget movie with incredible action scenes absolutely dripping with surround effects. And just as with the previous two TrueHD titles, I am again very, very impressed and excited about what the format is capable of delivering.
First, a few notes about Dolby TrueHD. If you are unfamiliar with the format, visit my recent Spotlight report on what exactly it is and how you can upgrade your player to hear it. Second, in regards to this comparison, I decided to skip HDMI and use the analog outputs on my Toshiba HD-XA1 and feed them directly into my receiver's analog inputs. I'm currently using the Denon AVR-1803 A/V Dolby Digital/DTS Surround Processor, but I also invested in a new Panasonic SA-XR57S Home Theater Receiver just this past week. Probably the cheapest consumer receiver currently on the market that can give you Dolby TrueHD, the Panasonic is a solid little deck that gave me an idea of how the format also sounds on the kind of equipment that is more likely within reach of the average consumer. Finally, regardless of what type of receiver you are using or how you are connecting it, be absolutely sure to visit the "Setup" menu of your Toshiba HD DVD player and set the "Dialogue Enhancement" feature to "Off." If you don't, it will pretty much ruin the Dolby TrueHD experience, and the only way to really hear the format in all its glory is without any artificial processing enabled in your audio chain.
With that out of the way, onto 'The Perfect Storm.' The film's sound design really goes down like a hurricane on HD DVD, whether you're fully TrueHD-enabled or still stuck with old-fashioned Dolby Digital. This is a very aggressive mix, and since the film contains so much action it is almost constantly enveloping. Needless to say, the film's major setpieces absolutely crank in TrueHD. I thought I was impressed with 'Training Day' and 'The Phantom of the Opera,' but I've never heard such a consistently immersive "wall of sound" as I did during 'The Perfect Storm's main three action setpieces.
The first comes about mid-way through the film, when a private charter boat also lost in the storm is rescued by the Coast Guard. Though plot-wise this entire sequence is extraneous, it is not to be missed if you love great surround sound. The sense of reality, depth and fine detail to the sounds that were coming out of my rears speakers was of a caliber I have just not heard before in my home theater, at least with my equipment. And what is really startling about the level of quality TrueHD is capable of delivering is that imaging is so transparent. The sounds of the crashing waves and whirling helicopter blades just completely filled the whole 360-degree soundfield, yet specific sounds were incredibly distinct in the mix. Compared to the Dolby Digital-Plus track, which is more localized, it is often night and day in terms of specific moments and sounds. I know it is a cliche, but the TrueHD track really does make you feel like "you are there," right in the middle of the action.
The film's later two big action sequences also sound just as terrific (though they are really more like one long, climatic setpiece, beginning with the Andrea Gale attempting to overcome a giant wave, then eventually being capsized by it). I'm a big sucker for ambiance and atmosphere, and 'The Perfect Storm' has always been one of my favorite demo soundtracks because it offers more than just big, crashing surround sound effects. There are moments of great subtlety throughout the mix, and on the TrueHD track I was especially impressed by the little details I'd never heard before. For example, during the final scenes when (spoiler alert!) George Clooney decides to die with his ship while Mark Wahlberg descends to the surface, the power of the score and haunting undersea sound effects reveal discrete shadings that were considerably more effective than ever before. I could even make out the sound of individual gurglings and pounding rain on the surface of the water above, that were startling in their clarity.
However, I will say that one thing I've found with the TrueHD titles I've reviewed so far is that they really haven't offered a noticeable difference with dialogue reproduction, nor actual volume levels. Granted, all the tracks I've heard so far are modern, big budget action spectacles, so they already sound great in standard Dolby Digital. Only the singing voices in 'The Phantom of the Opera' really stood out better to me in TrueHD, but in 'The Perfect Storm' for example, I can't recall a single line of dialogue bearing any improvement. I also bet none of these first TrueHD mixes come from a different master than the ones used for the Dolby Digital-Plus tracks (really, why would they?), and in the case of 'Storm,' that means there are a few sequences where the spoken word can be a bit drowned out by all the effects. TrueHD offers no help here, and so far, from what I've heard, the main improvements the format offers have been in the quality of more fine sonic details and the level of surround activity, and little else. But hey, I'm not complaining. As far as 'The Perfect Storm' goes, I would never listen to anything else but the Dolby TrueHD track unless I was forced otherwise.
When 'The Perfect Storm' was first released on standard DVD in 2000, its extras were a pretty big deal -- back when multiple commentaries and a featurette still seemed exciting and comprehensive. Six years on, it is funny how ordinary, even dull, these extras now seem.
First up are not one but three audio commentaries, the first with director Wolfgang Petersen, the second with author Sebastian Junger, and the third with visual effects supervisor Steen Fangmeier and visual effects producer Helen Ostenberg Elswit. Unfortunately (and my apologies to Fangmeier and Elswit), but I found the effects commentary incredibly dull, not only because two hours is just too much time to try and fill all about visual effects, but also because I find this type of material is better suited to a video-based feature. I liked the Junger track better, and he is probably the most fascinating, because the real-life tale of the Andrea Gail is undoubtedly riveting. Petersen also offers a wealth of information, though he is a bit more dry than Junger, and often repeats the material on the effects commentary when he discusses the film's big action setpieces.
Next up are three featurettes, though two are far too short. "HBO First Look: The Perfect Storm" is one of those utterly typical EPK things made before the movie was released, and entirely self-serving. Better are "Witness to the Storm," which interviews people who actually witnessed the "storm of the century," and "James Horner at Work," which visits with the Academy Award-winning composer during scoring sessions for the film. But with these two running only four minutes apiece, they can barely scratch the surface.
Rounding out the extras is the earnest but nicely done "Yours Forever" stills montage, plus the film's theatrical trailer. All of the video-based supplementary material is presented in 480p/i and Dolby 2.0 stereo.
I liked 'The Perfect Storm,' but wished I could have loved it. Still, it is an entertaining, sometimes captivating film, and is certainly tailor-made for the home theater. Alas, I am underwhelmed by the transfer on this HD DVD disc, though the soundtrack is rather terrific -- especially in Dolby TrueHD, which really delivers a whopper. The supplements are also fine but no great shakes. I wouldn't say this is worth an upgrade for those who own the standard DVD edition of the film, though it is worth considering if you do own 'The Perfect Storm' on disc.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.