It's 2016. We're far enough along on the digital effects timeline to make the call: The waves are looking good! Digitally animated waves are looking better all the time, in fact, even when filmmakers push allegedly realistically scaled waves to heights approaching that enormous wall of water in "Interstellar."
Digital snow, on the other hand, looks stupid. It floats wrong, at any speed. It resembles snow-globe snow, which is not snow falling or pummeling naturally; it's snow swirling unconvincingly in a liquid-filled globe.
Happily -- which is a strange word, given the sloshy adversity challenging the U.S. Coast Guard heroes on screen -- the new Disney-produced adventure drama "The Finest Hours" amounts to more than a working illustration of weather-driven effects work in contemporary movies. It's no stranger to cliche, yet it's a consistently tense and forcefully acted example of fictionalized nonfiction, based on the book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman.
The story is far more familiar in the part of the country where "The Finest Hours" takes place, and where nor'easters will someday earn their own trading-card line. In February 1952 not one but two oil tankers off the coast of Cape Cod were creamed by the same winter storm. The ships broke in half, or halves, and while more than one rescue mission took place that day and night, the film version of "The Finest Hours" focuses on the four-man Coast Guard team, braving the storm in a motorized 36-foot lifeboat, heading into what appeared to be certain death to save the men of the tanker Pendleton.
Chris Pine, doing his best, most humble Matt Damon impression, plays the chief hero of the hour, Bernie Webber, who leaves his telephone operator fiance (Holliday Grainger) on shore while he and his crew risk their lives. (Eric Bana plays the commanding officer back at the lighthouse.) The film's parallel hero is Pendleton chief engineer Ray Sybert, a loner but a handy man in a disaster. He's portrayed by Casey Affleck, whose Massachusetts dialect (he's a Mass. native) is subtle and lived-in. It's a shrewd performance, too, but that accent alone is enough to counter all the lousy, over-the-top Baaaahhhhston accents at the movies lately.
Director Craig Gillespie has made worthy commercial films in various genres, among them the "Fright Night" remake and, more recently, for Disney, the Jon Hamm vehicle "Million Dollar Arm." With "The Finest Hours" he has made yet another one. The script embraces certain character archetypes wholeheartedly (pig-headed crew mate; ramrod-stiff officer) and not always successfully. Yet the tone, the mood of the picture, with its desaturated color palette, maintains the right atmosphere.
As for the 3-D, it's all but worthless, given the visibility levels caused by all that crummy weather. You needn't pop for the 3-D up-charge. But you may be surprised, as I say, at how the thing works, despite a comically protracted wrap-up, full of wordless close-ups and watery eyes. For all I know it may still be going on.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of peril)
Running time: 1:54
"Finest Hours" -- 3 stars
Opens: Thursday evening ___
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