Josh Lucas is a very compelling actor but someone keeps trying to make him into an action star. Last summerís dud Stealth didnít do him any favors, nor does Poseidon, a remake of the 1972 disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure. Come to think of it, there are a lot of good actions in this movie, but one can only wonder why any of them signed up for this particular ride. Action movies are infamous for letting the spectacle swallow the acting, but hereís a case where the performers are literally given almost nothing to do. This is a movie about a cruise ship flipping over; the fact that human beings are on board is merely a side issue.
The title refers to a luxury liner that has set sail for a New Yearís Eve cruise. A giant party is held in the ballroom where a singer (played by Stacy ďFergieĒ Ferguson of the Black Eyed Peas) belts out a few numbers. Almost immediately after the stroke of midnight, an enormous ďrogue waveĒ hits the ship, turning it upside down in the water. An air bubble is created in the ballroom, keeping the passengers from drowning. But rather than waiting for help, a few of them decide to make their way out through the bottom (which is now the top).
The brave Ė or perhaps foolish Ė individuals who make this trek are led by professional gambler Dylan Johns (Lucas). They include former New York mayor Robert Ramsay (Kurt Russell), his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum), and her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel), who is not daddy-approved. Jacinda Barrett (Ladder 49) plays a single mother who tows her little boy along. There is also Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), a suicidal gay man, and stowaway Elena (Mia Maestro). With each section of the ship they traverse, a new life-threatening adventure awaits. As scary as it is, they know they have done the right thing when the ballroom floods, killing those who chose to stay behind.
Iím not sure what the reason was for this remake. The Poseidon Adventure - with its all-star cast and its disaster theme Ė is very much a product of the 1970ís. Similar movies like Airport and The Towering Inferno were all the rage back then. The mid-90ís brought about a revival of the genre, but I think that itís necessarily fizzled out. In light of the fact that weíve all witnessed real-life disasters such as the World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina, itís nearly impossible (for me, at least) to get lost in a movie such as this. I realize that this is no particular fault of Poseidon, yet it remains a fact that this type of film has lost its sense of frivolous fun. What was light entertainment in the 70ís has a new, darker resonance today.
Then again, anything is possible and itís not inconceivable that a featherweight disaster flick like Poseidon could have worked, had it tapped into our very real fears. Unfortunately, that doesnít happen here. The film is concerned only with getting to the action, with no intention of exploring the horror of an unexpected tragedy or its impact on the people involved. That giant wave hits the boat around the ten-minute mark, which means that we just barely know the characters about whom we are supposed to care. Each of them is given a brief introduction, which consists of showing exactly one personality trait. Because these traits are so sketchily drawn, you can easily predict certain things that will happen later on. For instance, I knew from the beginning how the situation between Ramsey and his daughter would play out. (The fact that itís become a father/daughter movie clichť doesnít help.)
Other times, the screenplay (by Mark Protosevich) actively avoids any moral ambiguity that might draw us in. There was great potential for a very interesting dynamic between the Richard Dreyfus character and the stowaway. During the escape, he does something to save his own life at the expense of another person. We have every reason to believe that Elena will care deeply about this, but a line of dialogue quickly erases that possibility. Here is the one chance for Poseidon to explore humanity in a time of tragedy, and it puts its tail between its legs and runs away.
To be fair, the action scenes are mostly effective, at least in the early going. Vastly improved special effects create a more believable disaster, and director Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm) knows how to wring some excitement. I particularly liked the little touch where one character has a claustrophobic freak-out while the group crawls through an air duct. Itís a good example of taking an already suspenseful moment and cranking up the tension. Ditto for a harrowing scene set in an elevator shaft.
Toward the end, the action gets mighty absurd, with Dylan in particular appearing to be nothing short of indestructible. This again illustrates my point about the expiration date on disaster movies. We know from real disasters that people sometimes have to do unpleasant things to escape. Crawling through an air duct is therefore not hard to imagine. However, the things that happen at the end of Poseidon are so far over-the-top that I was pulled out of the moment. How can we be expected to buy into such preposterous events when hundreds or thousands of people are dead inside the boat?
Poseidon looks great and sounds great. On every technical level, itís extremely well made. However, there is no purpose to it. With a 99-minute running time that is unusually brief for the genre, itís clear that the makers only cared about the thrill ride element of the story. That might have been okay in 1972, but in 2006, itís just not enough.
( 1/2 out of four)
Poseidon is rated PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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