Made for a whopping $160 million, 2006’s “Poseidon” was a disastrous business proposition on and off screen. Which is surprising, as many believed the 1972 original was an ideal candidate for being improved upon. Alas, a short running time, a huge amount of CGI (no matter how flawless), and one-note characters doomed Wolfgang Petersen’s remake to the realm of “Ishtar”, where all movies with bloated budgets, high expectations, and disastrous returns are sentenced for life, and brought out on special occasions only to be mocked or used as analogous examples. Having said all that, “Poseidon” ain’t an altogether bad Disaster Movie, and if approached purely on that level, it more than meets expectations.
With its plot readily known to the general populace, Petersen and screenwriter Mark Protosevich wastes little time getting to the heart of the matter. After a short 15 minutes of breezy character introductions, “Poseidon” summarily sinks the giant cruise ship of the same name on New Years Eve, the victim of what Andrew Braugher’s Captain calls a “Rogue Wave”, not to be confused with a Conformity Wave, or as the Canadians call it, Nice Nice Wave. Quickly, a small band of survivors emerge, determined to make their way through the ship, now upside down, seeking shelter as water begins to flood in and all manner of fire, death, and brimstone provide them with deadly obstacles. This is one lousy New Years Eve they’ll definitely remember.
Josh Lucas (“The Hulk”) leads the pack as ex-Navy man Dylan, who one suspects might be some kind of ex-Navy SEALs judging by his daring-do. He’s joined in his quest for survival by the father and daughter team of Robert and Jennifer Ramsey (Kurt Russell and Emmy Rossum), and Jennifer’s fianc’ Christian (Mike Vogel). Not to be left behind are: a gay architecture played by Richard Dreyfuss, who was about to commit suicide by jumping overboard when the Rogue Wave appeared (in one of the film’s best moments); mother and son team Maggie and Conor James (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett); the disgustingly chauvinistic Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon), who proves not to be so fitting of his nickname; and Latina stowaway Elena (Mia Maestro), whose Latino last-minute boyfriend was subsequently crushed while trying to escape in an elevator shaft because, frankly, it just doesn’t pay to be a minority in a Disaster Movie.
The real brilliance of “Poseidon” is how much death and carnage Wolfgang Petersen was able to squeeze into the film’s 90-minute running time and still manage a PG-13 rating. You would think hundreds (nay, thousands) of people dying various grisly deaths would be worthy of an R, but then again, you don’t know the MPAA. The film really is big one set piece, with some tremendous and seamless CGI blended in for the film’s more harrowing sequences. Falling metal beams, giant hunks of ship parts, and flaming pyres of gasoline — they all look real and deadly. If you had any doubts where the film’s $160 million budget went, watching “Poseidon” should dispel all curiosity.
It’s been said that “Poseidon” is packed with one-dimensional personalities (Dylan’s strident belief that he can survive no matter what; Robert’s paternal instincts for daughter Maggie; daughter Maggie’s obsessive love for fianc’ Christian; and so on), and perhaps this is true. Not that it matters, of course. “Poseidon” is a Disaster Movie, and the only thing well-developed characters would have done is hinder the disaster sequences. To this end, director Wolfgang Petersen doesn’t care about what makes anyone tick (oh sure, there are the cursory Impact Moments sprinkled throughout, usually when someone is about to, or has, died), only how to get them from one set piece to another, and he does this marvelously. In fact, the way the water continually stalks the survivors brings to mind a Slasher movie. No matter how far they go, no matter how many obstacles they overcome, that damn water is still coming, and coming…
“Poseidon” has been edited so tightly that it feels as if we are watching these people trying to survive in real-time. The actors are constantly breathless, acting on instinct, continually pressed forward purely by the guttural, primitive need to survive the death and destruction pursuing them like some immortal Greek monster from the sea. Which makes their different professions (the ex-Navy man is familiar with ship design, the ex-firefighter knows fire behavior, and the architect knows construction) wholly convenient, but hey, it’s a movie about a giant cruise ship the size of the Mall of America and with all the amenities getting hit by a 10-story wave that no one saw coming despite all the technologies available today. What do you want, realism?
In many ways, “Poseidon’s” best feature, its breakneck pace, is also its major failing, offering the audience little time to fully take in the situation. In no time, Dylan is on the move and Robert and the others right behind him. Would any of us really react so swiftly and with such great conviction mere minutes after such a disaster? Probably not. The pacing forces us to follow the characters as they run from one deadly obstacle to the next, as they breathlessly communicate their makeshift plans to one another, and in many ways the real danger of the situation never gets the chance to be presented and mulled over before it is quickly survived and we are onto the next obstacle.
As a summer thrill ride, “Poseidon” is not nearly as bad as you may have heard. To be sure, it’s no masterpiece, and perhaps it relies on CGI and a hectic pace just a bit too much. There isn’t all that much imagination to the script by Protosevich, and as the majority of us don’t know a bulkhead from a port, we just have to take the movie’s word for it that the characters are doing perfectly logical things as they navigate the wreckage of the Poseidon. But as a purely entertainment vehicle, “Poseidon” more than delivers. It has thrills, death and destruction on a grand scale, and its set pieces are quite eyefuls. One would imagine that a director like Ang Lee would have done more with the characters and their tenuous situation, but then again, Ang Lee probably wouldn’t have remade a 1972 movie, so that is a moot point.
Wolfgang Petersen (director) / Mark Protosevich (screenplay), Paul Gallico (novel)
CAST: Kurt Russell …. Robert Ramsey
Josh Lucas …. Dylan Johns
Richard Dreyfuss …. Richard Nelson
Jacinda Barrett …. Maggie James
Emmy Rossum …. Jennifer Ramsey
Mike Vogel …. Christian
Mia Maestro …. Elena
Jimmy Bennett …. Conor James
Andre Braugher …. Captain Bradford
Kevin Dillon …. Lucky Larry