A film review by Craig J. Koban

POSEIDON j
½ 

2006, PG-13, 99 mins.

Dylan Johns: Josh Lucas / Robert Ramsey: Kurt Russell / Maggie James: Jacinda Barrett / Richard Nelson: Richard Dreyfuss / Conor James: Jimmy Bennett / Jennifer Ramsey: Emmy Rossum / Capt. Bradford: Andre Braugher

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen /  Written by Mark Protosevich /Based on the novel by Paul Gallico

Every time I think back to the original 1972 disaster flick – THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE – I always contemplate what a heinously inappropriate title the film had.  In case you have not seen the film, it concerned a vast ocean liner filled with hundreds of passengers that capsized from the force of a large, killer wave.  The remaining people that managed to stay alive literally risked their lives in order to secure a way out of the doomed vessel. 

At least in my opinion, there does not – in any way shape or form – seem anything adventurous or exciting or thrilling about the prospect of  facing drowning, electrocution, and any other vile and cruel form of death that only a doomed passenger aboard a tipped over ship could endure out in the middle of the ocean.  I always thought that more fitting titles for the film could have been THE POSEIDON DISASTER or THE POSEIDON CALAMITY or THE TRAGEDY OF THE POSEIDON.  A friend of mine suggested the more pulpy option of TERROR AT THE HIGH SEAS.  I especially liked that one.

I guess the one thing that Wolfgang Peterson’s $160 million re-imagining of the original Ronald Neame suspense thriller is that it had the perseverance and clearness of mind to call itself simply POSEIDON.  This new title seems very similar to TITANIC, another big budget, deep-sea disaster flick that also had the keen foresight to not name itself something equally moronic and inane, like THE TITANIC ADVENTURE, for example.  However, the semantic accolades for this new big budget, summer blockbuster end there.  The one thing detrimental thing that Peterson’s adaptation does is it adapts a film that was not altogether that good to begin with.  Ultimately, what we are left with is an incredibly lethargic and redundant 99 minutes at the multiplex. Honestly, why remake a film that reveled in being such a generic, clichéd, and formulaic genre picture?  The original POSEIDON was not sunk by the weight of ocean water; it was capsized by it's own heavy handed cornball elements.

The original POSEIDON came out during the heyday (I refuses to call it a “Golden Age,” which would preclude high value) of the genre of the disposable disaster films.  The 70’s saw the rise of this formula with AIRPORT and further saw widespread audience acceptance with POSEIDON.   There were even more permutations of the genre, which included some decent entries (like THE TOWERING INFERNO) and some decidedly awful ones (like EARTHQUAKE and AIRPORT 1975).  Yet, POSEIDON was a benchmark work in terms of lowering the bar to the level of a lowest, common denominator popcorn auctioneer.  I guess if it could be given any credit, it would be that it has the dubious honor of defining the genre that would be regurgitated countless times in the future, often with even more mind-numbing results.

I would like to think that we live in a much more liberal and advanced cinematic age where respected directors and actors would not allow themselves to be reduced to this type of perfunctory and frivolous filmmaking.  Unfortunately, this new POSEIDON does everything humanly possible to re-affirm my worst fear that the large scale, Hollywood juggernaut will go to any lengths and spend any dollar amount to resurrect old cinematic conventions for contemporary audiences.  The problem with this approach is that the studios obviously think we’re idiots, or suckers, or maybe both.  I guess you’d have to be in order to be lured into this remake.

The original “adventure” was - for my mind - the worst multiple Oscar nominated feature of all-time (it achieved nine nominations, winning two).  It was a stern and forthright exercise in silly and preposterous filmmaking.  The film established and cemented the more obligatory elements of the disaster picture.  First, you have to have – of course – a disaster.  This can take the form of a natural phenomenon (like a storm or - as in some recent cases - an extra-terrestrial invasion).  Second, you can have this disaster affect and/or take place at a location or a mode of transportation (i.e. – AIRPORT had a plane; THE TOWERING INFERNO took place in a high rise).  Third, you have to have scenes of laughable character exposition where multiple personas are developed with such startling one dimensionality that they make The Man With The Yellow Hat feel like Hamlet.  Finally, you need to have all of these stock characters band together in a last ditch effort to collectively save their lives and live happily ever after.

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE had all of these elements mapped out to mediocre perfection.  You had the disaster (the tidal wave), the location that was being effected (the ocean liner) and all of the standard characters.  You had the preacher (Gene Hackman, still one of his most embarrassing performances); the tough cop (Ernest Borgnine); a former prostitute with a heart of gold (Stella Stevens); and a couple of devote Jews (Jack Albertson and Shelly Winters, the latter who was inexplicably nominated for Best Actress for the film).  They all get past their differences and manage to work as a group to get out of the ship alive, all while bickering incessantly.  All of the characters were given their own moments of woefully hilarious illumination on their back stories, which often came up at highly convenient times.  I especially loved one howler of a moment where Winters revealed that she was - as a younger woman - a member of the Young Woman’s Hebrew Association and that she was a swimming champion for them.  Hmmm…it would not take a rocket scientist to realize that her swimming talents would manifest themselves later in the film.

What’s truly remarkable about Peterson’s POSEIDON is how stridently and unnecessarily faithful it is to the original, right down to the basic characteristics of the genre.  All of these include the substandard characters that are cardboard cut-outs, the lame and hammy back stories they all have, the cheesy and lackluster dialogue they are given to spew out, and last – and most importantly – they all have to unite together to battle a nasty catastrophe that could ultimately cost them their lives.  Oh, Peterson does take great pains to modernize the film – one of the survivors is gay, but is not necessarily a champion swimmer for the Young Woman’s Hebrew Association.

The people that populate Peterson’s remake are all from the broad based character factory that have the singular trait of being performed by good actors who look like they are coasting their way to a pay check.  We have the former fire chief and city mayor, Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell); his daughter  (THE PHANTOM AND THE OPERA’s luminous Emmy Rossum, utterly wasted here); the professional gambler, Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas); the contemptuous, pigheaded, and chauvinistic man whore (Kevin Dillion, who plays obnoxious to the point of being teeth grating); the lonely single mother (Jacinda Barrett); the lonely single mother’s kid (Jimmy Bennett); the stowaway (the undeniably gorgeous Mia Maestro, playing one of the most undeniably gorgeous stowaways of recent memory); and finally we have – my personal favourite –the jaded, suicidal homosexual (I am not kidding) played by Richard Dreyfus, whom I thought all but dropped off of the radar of respectable screen performances.  He has not made a good film in over ten years and his work here reeks of desperation (Dreyfus is a great, proven actor, but it's pitiful to see him aware that he’s in a dud and it painfully shows; he looks inescapably weathered, tired, and bored stiff with his part). 

Why Dreyfus' role is played gay is beyond me.  I guess his character could be justified as needing to be gay as much as Hackman’s needed to be a man of faith and Russell’s needed to be a former mayor.  Ultimately, these traits are meaningless.  All of these people are all just cattle being set up for the natural disaster induced slaughter.  It's amazing - in retrospect - how much these films try to cater to some sort of baseless need for developing it's characters.  Then again, maybe it's wise to have a "gambler" that likes to take risks, a former "fireman" that knows a heat blast behind a closed door when he sees it, and an obnoxious man whore who justifies our wanting of him to die as expeditiously as possible.  The only thing this flick is missing is a cute dog, but as the formula for these kind of films dictate, you can never, ever kill a cute canine.

Thankfully, we are not given too much exposition in this version – at least not as much as in the 1972 film.  Let’s just say that after the opening shot (a virtuoso rendering of the entire vessel, done with a sweeping 360 degree camera and masterful visual effects) you could easily go for drinks and popcorn until about the twenty-minute mark.  During those opening minutes we meet all of the characters, are given brief insights into their lives, their insecurities, their hopes…blah, blah, blah.  Then, during a lavish New Year’s bash a 150-foot tidal wave comes storming in and capsizes the ship (these sequences are kind of awesome in scope and detail, but not in terms of shock and awe).  While most of the remaining survivors huddle in the upside down ballroom waiting to be rescued, Dylan decides to lead a small group out of there because he realizes that if they don’t leave the ballroom and seek escape via to port side of the ship, then they are doomed.  I mean, they better escape!  Emmy Rossum’s character just got engaged on board and Mia Maestro wants to desperately see her brother on a surprise visit.

POSEIDON is one of those films that seems born for the droll and sarcastic roasting that is usually supplied by the good people at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000.  Some of the scenes are real zingers.  I particularly liked Dreyfus letting us know - at one point - that he’s “an architect” and thus knows that the ship will not stay afloat upside down.  Hmmm…I am not sure that an architect is the same thing as an engineer (who would know why a ship would stay afloat), but it probably does not take an engineer to realize that the ship is destined to sink.  Other moments involving dialogue are also cringe-worthy, like “We were just struck by what scientists often call a ‘rogue’ wave,”  followed by the equally dumb, “That’s a pressurized door!  It will only open with pressure,” and "This is the ballast tank.  W can escape through that door!"  These words are followed a lot by multiple variations of “This is the way out” and “You can’t do that” and “Are you insane?"

It’s truly amazing how resourceful these divergent personalities are.  Dylan sure seems to know a hell of a lot about the vessel and is able to discern vast amounts of information about the ship from the smallest of schematic maps (which are all placed around the vessel during key moments where the characters urgently need them).  All of the characters are also conveniently able to stray away from electrocution, drowning, being impaled (okay, not all of them escape that grizzly death), and other forms of tortuous death.  The true delight of watching the film is being able to precisely predict which person will die first.  Thankfully, the most annoying personalities are killed fast; one in particular is decimated in wicked manner that only could have occurred on a capsized ocean liner that was the victim of a “rogue” wave.

POSEIDON is all the more shameful a film-going experience considering that it comes from the usually resourceful and competent hands of Peterson.  He is a good – nay – great director who made DAS BOAT (one of the great films of the 80’s) as well as other masterful thrillers like IN THE LINE OF FIRE and the wonderfully conceived A PERFECT STORM.  Obviously, based on two of those films, Peterson is no stranger to staging pulse-pounding entertainments at sea, but all of his versatility, first-rate skills, and assured passion behind mounting memorable films are all but drowned out in POSEIDON.  Did he not have anything remotely interesting to say or do with this material?  Instead or being a dry and boring retread, he could have infused POSEIDON with elements that would have allowed it to rise above the ridiculous etiquette of the disaster genre.

Yet, perhaps the biggest question that plagued me as I watched this film is why he thought there was a grand and memorable film to be derived out of this material to begin with?  Peterson is too gifted a talent to wander aimlessly into these problematic waters.  In a great director’s hands, remakes can be worthwhile enterprises (see 2004’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which did an exemplary job of appropriating material from a classic film).  Unfortunately, in Peterson’s hands, we get a lethargic entry into a genre that was old and tired decades ago.  His POSEIDON offers no glimpse of originality, vitality, wit, or charm.  Sure, it’s mindless fun in small portions, but so was the first POSEIDON.  Why there existed a need for reminding us of Hollywood’s complacency for spearheading monotonous and tedious auctioneers from 20-plus years ago kind of baffles me.  Instead of improving (for the better) on the 1972 film (which was sub par to begin with), it merely mimics.  For that, POSEIDON is a real wasted effort for all those aboard.

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