Ridley Scott, the visual dynamo behind "Blade Runner" and "Alien," just to name a few, has a tall ship and a star to steer her by; he just doesn't have much of a script.
Scott understands outsides as well as any director around, but his work always has a profound emotional emptiness, because he's not too swift at what's going on inside.
Thus his gorgeous sailing yarn "White Squall" appears to be a movie obsessed with the physical universe, the actual outsideness of things. It's all texture, sensual information, excitement, all so brilliantly packaged that you can almost smell the salt and feel the spray.
Based on a true story, it follows a group of rich boys on a character-building quest who end up facing something more than a little bit of extra work: a wall of angry white water as uninterested in their preciousness as Moby Dick was in the feelings of the crew of the Pequod. It's not nice to fool Mother Nature: She kicks butt.
In 1961, the brigantine Albatross set out, as was its custom, on a round-the-world trip with a stalwart grown-up sailor at the helm, his wife in the galley as ship's medical officer, and an English teacher who carried on like Popeye as his first mate. Also on board: 20 or so wealthy boys, each of whom had some sort of "problem," usually a kind of inability to live up to his father's rigid dreams (anthropological note: Fathers had rigid dreams in 1961), for which they were lodged on the ship for a year of intense self-improvement.
The captain-principal is played with yards of WASP rectitude by Jeff Bridges, a man so cool and dignified he makes scruffy Docksiders look like $1,200 bespoke Oxfords. He believes in discipline, teamwork, hard work, male bonding, but in odd ways, he's somewhat blind: He has no problem with smoking or drinking, believing, evidently, that boys will be boys. A man like this needs a war in which to flourish, and history has not been kind enough to provide him with one; so he invents one, against the sea, and takes the boys along to learn how to be men.
Scott Wolf, of "Party of Five," plays the point-of-view character, a gung-ho Chuck Grieg, who appears to be the only member of the crew who really wants to be there. We watch through Chuck's eyes as the movie covers the usual routine of male-bonding shtick, a tempest of mini-dramas familiar from any boy movie. But the boys never really come alive. Dare I say white kids in bermuda and crew cuts all look pretty much alike, and their individual problems are so generic and so briefly sketched, they never really penetrate?
Where "White Squall" really comes alive is on the water. Scott makes the old ship seem like a co-star in the film, and one feels the creaking of the masts, the rasp of the ropes, the sheer effort in maintenance and dedication in work that it takes to sail a boat on the open sea. The sea, also, is a character: We watch its mercurial nature, its willingness to be gentle and calming like 1/8 1/8 TC loving mom, its impulse to be punitive and lethal like an abusive dad. But mostly, under Jack's tutelage, the boys handle it, and we feel them coming alive as a crew and as men. Then they hit the storm.
Storm stories have a congenital weakness: The storm is random, it's whimsical, it destroys what it destroys without reference to race, class or creed. Nature is an equal-opportunity killer, and what puts the Albatross in its path isn't fate or weakness of character, it's the brute bad luck of the universe.
But the 20-minute storm sequence in "White Squall," in which the boys and the men and the woman fight it, and it remorselessly but just as whimsically takes some and spares others, is a truly stunning spectacle, easily worth the price and the wait. Shot, edited and acted within an inch of its life, this sequence will easily scare the hell out of you and might scar younger viewers. Give Scott credit for making the unimaginable totally believable.
Alas, where "White Squall" founders is in a concluding segment that feels tagged on hastily, a court hearing in which certain, planted melodramatic plot strings are yanked extremely crudely. Scott really wants to yank us toward an epiphany of love, courage and togetherness, but once he gets inside, he loses his way. The last few minutes feel stitched out of outtakes too corny for either "Scent of a Woman" or "Dead Poets Society." It's a sad letdown in a film that has taken you to watery hell and back.
Starring Jeff Bridges and Scott Wolf
Directed by Ridley Scott
Released by Hollywood Pictures
Rated PG-13 (some profanity)
Sun score: ***