The Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm (2000)
Warner Home Video
Cast: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John C. Reilly
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurettes, Theatrical Trailer, Soundtrack Promo

German director Wolfgang Petersen is no stranger to the sea. Not only has he been raised close to the sea, he also brought us one of the most memorable high-seas war movies of all times with his 1981 epic "Das Boot." But Petersen is also no stranger to thrilling, dramatic storytelling as he has proven many times in films such as "In The Line Of Fire" or "Outbreak." "The Perfect Storm" appeared to be the perfect vehicle for Petersen and made an impressive DVD debut when it was first released. Eager to see how it translates to HD-DVD I popped in the disc, but I quickly realized that something went terribly wrong here…

Based on real events, "The Perfect Storm" tells the story of the Andrea Gail and its crew, a small sword-fishing boat from the ports of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1991, skipper Billy Tyne (George Clooney) takes the boat out onto one last catch before the season ends and forces the fishermen into the docks. The crew on the trip consists mostly of the captain's regulars, who had agreed to join Tyne to finally make some money after an utterly disappointing season.

The "Andrea Gail" in vain explores the common fishing grounds and in an act of desperation, Tyne decides to take the vessel out to fishing grounds far in the Northern Atlantic where the men strike it rich. But before they can enjoy their luck, the ice machine breaks down, forcing the boat to return home as quickly as possible, before their valuable sword fish cargo goes bad. But between them and their home lies a storm the like the world has never seen. A rare occasion during which three weather fronts collide, the men and the Andrea Gail are suddenly caught in the middle of the perfect storm. Risking their lives in order to save their catch, it soon becomes obvious that these 50" waves are too much to handle for the small fishing boat. But nothing prepares them for what is yet to come…

Apart from the highly dramatic story, "The Perfect Storm" features a number of elements that make this film touching and entertaining. Trying to stay as true to the real recorded events as good as possible, director Wolfgang Petersen and his cast capture a great many of the real-life events and characters that were part of this tragic story. Despite the fact that the characters themselves have comparably small parts in the overall scheme of things, they become very human, and I think it is easy to see that these men made their decision based on their best knowledge. Bringing in these fish made the difference between having a future and living impoverished to them. One good day at sea could make out their mortgage payments for months to come, and the movie nicely introduces us into this class of fishermen and their dependency on seasonal fishing for a living. On a side note some of you may be interested to hear that there is an excellent programming about the real "Andrea Gail" on the Discovery Channel that is re-broadcast periodically and well worth watching.

The real star of the movie is unquestionably the storm itself. Impressive and with brute force, the storm is a monster to behold. Whether it is achieved by practical effects – as described in one of the featurettes – or through ILM's computer wizardry, the powers and dangers of such a storm at sea comes across vividly and believably, giving the film a very serious note. All of a sudden we realize how fragile humans can be in the face of nature, and since we also know that the story we see is based on real-life events, we know that these men are at the mercy of the storm for real. No computer trick, no creative license and no unrealistic Hollywood ending will change their fates as we watch the fishermen face wave after wave. Although I found some of the effects unnaturally synthetic in look and feel, I am hardly an expert in all things open-sea storms. The sheer force and scope of the storm quickly lets you forget that you are watching special effects and turns the film into a tribute to these and all other fishermen, who put their lives in the hands of Mother Nature every time they go out to sea.

Warner Home Video brings "The Perfect Storm" to high definition in the movie's original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio on this HD-DVD. While at first it seemed like a decent transfer after viewing it for a few minutes I noticed something very disturbing. The transfer shows exaggerated ghosting artifacts, which are most likely a result of over-compression. It is most pronounced in scenes where we see close-ups of people. As they talk and move their head slightly, the facial features actually trail behind the head. The head would move to the left, for example, while the eyes, mouth and nose would stay in place for a few frames and then follow the head later. This sort of artifact could be seen previously in heavily restored movies where the negative was damaged and people tried to fill in the missing image information with detail from previous frames. "The Perfect Storm" is a fairly new movie however and I am not entirely sure how this sort of artifact could have been introduced into the transfer and moreover, how the quality control people at Warner Home Video could have overlook this. It is evident in virtually every single close-up shot as well as many wide shots and the even bigger problem is that once you have noticed it, you start looking for it, which in turn will make it all the more exaggerated, ultimately destroying the illusion of the movie and its presentation.
As sad as it may sound, this is unfortunately the worst HD-DVD transfer I've seen so far, due to this problem, making it impossible – at least for me – to fully enjoy the film. The artifact is so distracting that it keeps pulling me out of the movie experience.

On the audio side, the release does offer a 5.1 channel Dolby TrueHD audio track as well as a Dolby Digital EX track in English, a 5.1 channel 5.1 mix in French as well as a Spanish Stereo track. Although the track is not nearly as aggressive as I had expected, given the fierce nature of the film, the audio track nonetheless makes constant use of the discrete surround channels and uses the LFE channel to enhance the impact of the low end that is omnipresent in the track. The frequency response of the audio track is very wide, ranging from the highest end of the sonic spectrum to voluminous basses that are especially impressive during the climactic storm sequence. With an imposing dynamic range, the audio mix also manages to capture very subtle elements of the ambient mix as well as the ponderous crashes of thunder and waves.
Dialogues are very well integrated and are never drowned out by the sound effects or the music. Clear and understandable, the dialogues are free of distortion and have a very natural sounding quality.

James Horner created the score to "The Perfect Storm" and he nicely managed to capture the essence of the film. Both the human spirit, the tragedy and the forces of nature are taking shape in this beautiful score that is presented in a wide surround mix on this DVD. Scoring the storm sequence itself must have been an incredible challenge, as there is a lot of ground and time to cover with very little spoken words during the raging seas scenes – other than a few yelled orders and scream – and on top of that, the music is constantly open to a barrage of thunderous sound effects. It is very tricky to create a score that is adequately covering such a major portion of the film, and indeed, the score sometimes feels a bit superfluous, but seen as a whole, Horner went to some lengths to capture all the elements that make up the story.

The tree commentary tracks that can be found on the disc are the same ones as previously released on the DVD, each one of the highlighting a separate area of the film's production. Personally I found director Wolfgang Petersen's the most intriguing, as it covers many of the human aspects of the film, as well as giving very good and detailed insight into the technical side of the film. Writer Sebastian Junger who wrote the novel on which the film is based, gives a more detailed account of the events than what we see in the film only, and gives his commentary a very touching note, while in the third commentary track ILM's Stefen Fangmeier gives the viewer a detailed and thorough discussion of the special effects in the film.

In addition the HD-DVD version incorporates all the bonus materials that were part of the DVD release previously, all of them presented in 480p encoding with stereo audio tracks.

"Creating The Perfect Storm" is a HBO First Look featurette that was produced to promote the film during its theatrical run. It is a well-balanced documentary that offers some additional insight in the characters, the story, the production and the storm itself, without getting overly technical. It strikes a good balance between being entertaining and informative. Larded with interviews, on-set footage and a look at the special effects in the film, the featurette also gives you a good understanding what drove these men and a rare glimpse in the world of real fishermen. To make this featurette even more valuable, you will also get to meet many of the real people behind the story, people you see represented in the film, making it a truly memorable documentary of the production.

"Witnesses To The Storm" is a 5-minute featurette that features interviews with Gloucester fisherman who recall the day of the storm. It is an interesting recollection with some original video footage that is very impressive.

"Creating An Emotion" is a featurette that covers James Horner's music score for the film. It features footage from the orchestra recording and interviews with James Horner, as he discusses his approach to the film and the score. I found this feature particularly interesting, as information about the scoring process of a movie is still so sparse.

"Yours Forever" is a photo montage of still images from the movie that is set to the John Mellecamp song. A little on the melodramatic side, the photo gallery offers a nice summary of the film with some of the great human moments we get to witness, driving it home that this is the real story of these men, and not only Hollywood fiction. The theatrical trailer, cast and crew biographies and a gallery of storyboards from selected scenes top off this great release from Warner Home Video.

"The Perfect Storm" is HD-DVD's problem child, clearly. The film has a considerable length and is filled with challenging footage which is not easy to compress. In addition, it contains an uncompressed audio track alongside three other audio tracks and three separate audio commentary tracks, as well as a plethora of bonus materials and featurettes. All this leads me to believe that once again the storage capacity of HD-DVD is simply not enough to allow for proper presentation of such films, and that many of the video problems we're seeing here are result of complete over-compression of the material. Not until we see dual-layer HD-DVD releases that offer decent storage capacities, is HD-DVD really a serious contender for high definition delivery, I'm afraid.