Poseidon (2006): Petersen’s Mechanical Thrill Ride; Inferior Remake to 1972 Adventure

Modern technology and old-fashioned if also minimal storytelling clash in “Poseidon,” Wolfgang Petersen’s mechanical thrill ride, a disappointing remake of the cheesy yet enjoyable 1972 “The Poseidon Adventure.”

The big collision in “Poseidon” is not between the world’s finest vessel and the endless waters that keep erupting in different shapes and forms, but between the sophisticated CG and the hokum yarn. Petersen, an expert of shooting under water (“Da Boot,” “The Perfect Storm”) has not only reduced the film’s title to one word but also trimmed down the running time of the 1972 flick, though at a price: the film is utterly plotless and the characters one-dimensional.

Quite disappointingly, despite Petersen’s promise that his movie will be more realistically grounded and will reinvent the disaster genre, he falls victim to a repetitive and tiresome pattern: Every scene presents a threat and a test that at least one character will fail to pass. Every secne ends with an embrace by the survivors, reaffirming their personal and collective strength and will to live.

As cheesy and primitive as Ronald Neame’s 1972 film was, it had some warmth and you cared for some of the characters. In contrast, “Poseidon” has no characters and no plot, just a simple premise, an excuse to wreak havoc of massive proportions and then superficially test human nature in the face of imminent threat.

Due to the disproportionate number of catastrophes and disasters over the past year alone, “Poseidon” is timelier than the 1972 Irwin Allen-produced flick, but this relevancy makes the movieish nature of Petersen’s work all the more noticeable and offensive.

Watching the film, we are not under threat of being buried by water, but under threat of being buried by visual and verbal clichs. It’s as if Petersen and screenwriter Mark Protosevich decided to rehash all the conventions of the reliable Hollywood disaster genre from its beginning to the present. (See Film Cimment).

Like the first film, this “Poseidon” is set in New Years Eve aboard a luxury cruise ship. As the story begins, the ships guests are gathered to greet the New Year in style in the magnificent Main Ballroom, while Captain Bradford (Andre Braugher) delivers a holiday toast. Meanwhile, the Chief Officer detects a rogue wave bearing down on them. He tries to steer the ship away from maximum impact but its too late.

In the film’s most thriling set-piece, the wave strikes with colossal force, pitching the ship heavily to port before rolling it completely upside down. Passengers are crushed by debris or dragged into the sea as water bursts in through shattered windows. The supports collapse, broken gas lines ignite fires, and failing lights leave the ship in dark chaos. All of this happens in the first 20 minutes, during which the main characters are introduced through one or two lines of stiff dialogue.

The rest of the tale is devoted to the survival attempt of a small group of passengers led by professional gambler Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas). Choosing to test the odds alone, while ignoring orders, Dylan prepares to find his own way to safety but is collared by nine-year-old Conor (Jimmy Bennett) who asks to be taken along with his mother Maggie (Jacinda Barrett).

Others who join Dylan include Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), a former mayor of New York, who’s anxious to find his missing daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) and her fianc Christian (Mime Vogel) whom he dislikes.

In the group, there are also representatives of racial and gay minoirties: Elena is a poor stowaway (Mia Maestro), on her way to visit her sick brother; Richard Nelson is a suicidal gay man (Richard Dreyfuss); and Valentin is a young waiter with knowledge of the ships layout (Freddy Rodriguez of “Six Feet Under”).

Dylan reluctantly leads the band of survivors upward through the bowels of the ship. Determined to fight their way to the surface, they must forge a path together through layers of wreckage as the ship continues to sink.

The suspense in “Poseidon” and all disaster flicks is based on two sources: Finding out the specific method of escape and survival and guessing (during the movie) which of the passengers will perish (or live). A sadistic element is thus built into the fun of watching disaster movies: We want to know quickly who will die first and how.

We accept that the mortality rate of movie stars and protagonists is higher in disaster films than in other genres, but we still enjoy the game of narrowing down the survivors.

Often the good people die with the bad ones, and no logic dictates who will live. To lend spiritual significance, some movies clue us in on who will perish and who will survive by making the former cowardly and the latter courageous. “Poseidon” does not follow this pattern, yet I would take an ideological issue with the writer regarding the sequential order in which the victims die, or more specifically, which of the passengers die first. (I can’t disclose it here, but let’s just say that you won’t be surprised by the prominence of race).

To the filmmakers’ credit, there is no attempt to make the picture lofty or spiritual, as the 1972 movie was, where the hero (Gene Hackman) was a clergyman, and one of the courageous passengers was a fat old Jewish lady (Shelley Winters) on her way to her grandson’s Bar Mitzva.

No, either due to carelessness or mistrust of the audience’s intelligence and attention span, Petersen dispenses with plot and characterization, and the little verbal communication that exists is so stilted and preposterous that you wish the movie was even more dialogue-free.

As director, Petersen seems anxious to get quickly to the vulgar bravado of showing us graphically the specific manner in which the passengers die, though not before dwelling on the sexy females in the cast, particularly when splashed with water.

“Poseidon” would be more fun if we cared about who get killed and who survive, but the writers don’t do much for the characters. For example, what’s the significance of Ramsey being a former mayor and of New York City It’s the only attribute he has, plus his disapproval of his daughter’s deep cleavage!

The fact that the characters are played by a lackluster cast of mostly second bananas makes things worse. “Poseidon” makes clear why Kurt Russell has never become a major star and why Josh Lucas never will. Lucas has the handsome looks and built of a leading man but he is not commanding. He projects tension and intensity rather than comfort and reassurance, qualities that we demand from dashing screen heores.

Never letting a clich slip through the net, Petersen and his scripter have made a dumb and straight adventure that’s totally devoid of humor. Petersen is a better director than Neame ever was, but here, his energetic direction just ensures that every absurdity of character and plot is treated at face value. But he better be more careful with CG because, as in “Troy,” in some secens, the computer technology is all too visible.

“The Poseidon Adventure” was always a B-movie, a piece of pop junk, consumed the way we read mass-marketed novels at airports. However, the A+ budget and sumptuous production values have turned this “Poseidon” into a soulless thrill machine that doesn’t even qualify as trashy fun.

Poseidon and the Disaster Movie Genre

Is “Poseidon” a sheer repetition of the narrative scheme of a disaster flick, or is there an effort to update and change the genre’s conventions. (See Film Comment)