By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat February 13, 1996
The textured light patterns and grandiose compositions of British director Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner," "Thelma and Louise") have provided some of the most impressively stylized films of recent years. His intense visuals, which play with light and surface textures, create powerful imagery that envelops the viewer and brims with enough atmospheric detail to make even the staunchest of skeptics suspend their disbelief.
But Scott's talent is a hindrance as well. His desire to capture visual magnificence can sometimes make him vulnerable to the whims of a clumsy script that dangles its settings in front of him like a jeweled watch. Scott may be an artist, but he's one who's so impatient to get his paints on the canvas, he doesn't always check to make sure there's a good outline first.
This has never been clearer than in Scott's latest film, "White Squall," a movie with enough character types and verbal cliches to qualify itself as a mediocre "After School Special" visualized as an art film. Based on a true story, the film depicts a group of Ivy League students in the fall of '60 who venture on a brigantine through the Caribbean for a yearlong intensive study. They develop a love/hate relationship with their steely captain, but tragedy strikes when a freak storm erupts and smashes the ship, sinking it and drowning several members of the crew.
The story has enough real drama floating around, but the script, by television scribe Todd Robinson, glories in superficial emotions and standard coming-of-age types. From the bully with hidden insecurities to the wimpy student with low self-esteem, each of the students seems leftover from every youth Disney movie made in the '60s and '70s. One would think Robinson's adolescence was sweet and uneventful, or he was simply writing a bad parody of "Dead Poets Society." The trite interplay between the students contains moments of embarrassing dialogue, like a scene when one boy awakens from a nightmare and shakingly whispers, "But it was so real!" to which a friend consolingly offers, "The next time you have a bad dream, just say, 'One, two, three, wake up.'"
Thankfully, Jeff Bridges plays the ship's captain, and his unusual ability to merge a difficult exterior with affable humanity holds the drama together. Bridges is an often-overlooked actor, receiving critical accolades for films like "The Last Picture Show," "Starman," and "The Fisher King," but somehow failing to accumulate a popular following. His performance, mixing hardness with compassion, is one of the elements that keeps the film afloat.
The other engaging element to "White Squall" is the squall itself, which erupts three-fourths of the way into the film and provides director Scott the opportunity to play God and create one of the most violent and traumatic storm sequences ever put on film.
A white wall of rain crackling with lighting smashes into the side of the ship, capsizing it and sending titanic waves crashing over the sides and its crew tumbling in violent chaos. The ship is overpowered and its sinking is a lengthy struggle as people fight to save others from the descending tomb. The scenes of the storm are conveyed with a grandiose sense of destruction, and Scott is at the top of his form here, stirring up images infused with awe-inspiring power and lyrical sadness.
But despite Bridges' presence and Scott's impressive camerawork, "White Squall" remains an uneventful movie through most of its running time. Except for a ridiculously sappy courtroom conclusion, the film is not entirely bad, just told without much inspiration. The worst that can be said of it is that it's all been done before, but with its shimmering beauty and moments of terrific drama, its overriding banality makes it all the more disappointing.