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Well, they’ve gone and done it. They’ve stripped the “adventure” out of The Poseidon Adventure, leaving, fittingly enough, just Poseidon.
That’s not to say Wolfgang Petersen’s incredibly expensive ($160 million) remake of the 1972 cheeseball classic that helped launch a movie genre — the big, star-studded disaster epic — doesn’t have its adventure-like moments. But they play out mundanely, passively, without engaging our emotions or tapping into primal claustrophobic fears. The latter is especially dismaying, since Petersen’s 1981 World War II submarine epic, Das Boot, remains a magnificent example of how to generate high tension beneath the high sea.
But Das Boot was made by a master filmmaker. Poseidon was made by a sellout cashing a paycheck.
At least Petersen kicks things off with a grand and astonishing opening shot — a full 360-degree sweep of the luxury cruise ship Poseidon. It’s a single cut marvel, a seamless blend of fine cinematography from John Seale and the best special effects money can buy.
Under pressure: the waters rush in
We are then introduced to a handful of people we need to give a good gosh darn about on this soon-to-be floating morgue. There’s professional gambler Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), a man who cares for himself and no other (and who will, naturally, redeem himself); ex-firefighter and former New York City Mayor Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell) and his daughter and future son-in-law (Emmy Rossum and Mike Vogel); a morose stowaway (Mia Maestro) and the panting waiter (Freddy Rodriguez) keeping her in his cabin; a single mother and her young son (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett); a horse’s ass named Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon), whose luck will soon run out; and a gay architect (Richard Dreyfuss), nursing a broken heart and contemplating a dip in the big blue. All that’s missing is the Professor and Maryanne.
Next thing you know it’s New Year’s Eve. The captain (Andre Braugher) makes a forgettable little speech, followed by an equally forgettable song warbled by the ship’s chanteuse (Stacy Ferguson, better known as Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas). It sure ain’t no “Morning After.”
Suddenly — gasp! — the ship is hit by a giant “rogue wave.” Flip-flop. The party’s over.
The turnover should be a failsafe setpiece, filled with drama and horror. And yet Petersen, normally pretty adept with gripping action, botches it. Yes, it’s spectacularly shot, featuring all manner of violent details as bodies tumble from the floor to the ceiling, but it lacks a palpable sense of terror. There’s nothing startling or engaging about it. It’s just a five-minute sight that makes your eyes sore.
Once topsy-turvy, the brave few make a go at escape, working their way up to the bottom of the boat, despite the captain’s insistence that everyone to stay put. “We’ll be safe here,” he says, secretly figuring that if he’s forced to go down with the ship, he’s gonna take his passengers with him. After all, misery loves company.
As for the handful who ignore his orders, they encounter their own set of annoying little miseries. Flooded passageways. Burning passageways. Blocked passageways. Perilous elevator shafts. Perilous and cramped ventilation tunnels. It’s an unpredictable obstacle course, fraught with danger. But the biggest danger by far is that they’ll bore themselves to death reciting screenwriter Mark Protosevich’s bland, predictable dialogue.
What’s required is a Shelley Winters moment — you know, that remarkable underwater scene in the ’72 original that people still talk about to this day, the one that proved overweight has-been actresses are actually quite nimble underwater. There is no such scene in Poseidon, although there is a self-sacrifice from a character whose breath-holding ability almost rivals that of David Blaine’s. Unfortunately, the scene dies with the character, who doesn’t even have the luxury of a last dying gasp to a loved one.
You pretty much know who’s going to survive from the get-go (obviously they’re not going to kill the kid — or are they?). And you know they’ll eventually get out of the ship. Otherwise, what would be the point of following along with them? It’s this knowledge of the outcome, this lack of anything even resembling suspense, that fully sinks Poseidon.
There isn’t much call for acting in a movie like Poseidon, so none of the cast bother trying, though Dreyfuss, who has been in perilous waters before — as shark bait — lets his inner-thespian peek out every now and again. Then, realizing there’s no hope for an Oscar, he tucks it neatly away.
To be honest, the best acting in Poseidon hails from the dead bodies (the film is littered with them). They lie there, convincingly inert. It makes you want to rise from your seat and shout, “Bravo! I see Oscar-worthy dead people!”