Poseidon: Rehashing the Disaster Movie Formula

Is “Poseidon” a sheer repetition of the narrative scheme of a typical disaster film, or does it make an effort to update and change the conventions.

Unity of time, place and action

In most disaster movies, due to immediacy, there’s no distancing in time, place, action, or even costume. In “Poseidon,” unlike “United 93,” a disaster film of a very different kind, intensity, and quality, there are no cutaways to head quarters or politicians or any other humans.

Iconography

The imagery of the disaster film is usually limited because it draws on the disaster itself. In “Poseidon,” tons of water are used in a variety of forms. The film tries but doesn’t succeed in sustaining a somber mood and imminent dread of death.

Cross-section

In “Poseidon,” the band of survivors is demographically, politically, and sexually correct. Of the ten passengers, three are women (though there are no prostitutes) and one is a young boy. Age-wise, they are younger than the survivors in the 1972. There’s no substitute for Shelley Winters’ Jewish grandma, but we get a mature gay man grieving over being dumped.

Throughout, Petersen emphasizes that collective danger does not equal individual danger. The cross-section convention has both egalitarian and democratic implications, since, in theory, the villainous waters don’t discriminate among passengers along age, gender, or class. I say in theory because there are always exceptions to the rule.

Primacy of plot

In most disaster movies, plot is more important than characterization, and the major fault of this “Poseidon” is that it lacks development of either plot or character. Because the interaction between the passengers is confined in space and limited in duration, we learn very little about the survivors that we didn’t know before.

Hero

The hero is usually a layman with a pragmatic sense but no specialized knowledge; he is not an expert with specialized skills. Common sense and willingness to take risk are far more important assets than scientific knowledge per se.

Villain

Unlike “Jaws, “Towering Inferno,” and “Earthquake,” there are no human villains and no neglect or malpractice by scientists, engineers and architects. The disaster is the result of the hand fate, of Mother Nature.

Class conflict

In disaster films, materialistic concerns and luxurious lifestyles are supposed to be less important in the face of death. Hence, sharp disparities of class tend to decline and even disappear as the movie goes along. “Poseidon” abides by this norm. As noted, the passengers differ in class and lifestyle. Early on, Nelson wears expensive jewelry and orders a 5,000 wine bottle for his friends, while Valentin works in the kitchen and Elena has no food to eat. But it’s only a matter of time before he forgets about his status and becomes Elena’s protector, sort of big brother.

Gambling

Gambling is a recurrent device in such movies, which often show drawing of straws and flipping of coins in deciding what line of action to pursue. Gambling also serves as a motif–the notion that life itself is a gamble and we are all the mercy of the inscrutability of fate. Carried to an extreme, you could say that the disaster movies show the pettiness of ordinary people attempts to alter their doom.

Isolation

Since no help can be expected from the outside world, the threatened characters are thrown together. There’s no escape and no relief from each other. The remoteness and isolation turns the passengers helpless against the dangers of Nature. The characters’ isolation is exacerbated by the various conflicts within the group.

Camaraderie and bonding

Humans must unite against calamity, which means that personal conflicts and social differences must decrease. In disaster movies, the threat is natural, providing the mimetic harmonizing of a shattered community. Disaster films express the triviality of human differences in the face of cosmic danger, and how danger can bring the best in a person.

Romance

Almost invariably there is a romantic sub-plot. In “Poseidon,” Russell’s conservative father doesn’t approve of his daughter’s dallying; when he comments about her dcolletage, he gets punished for that. Romance signals the virtue of being emotionally responsive, and the ability to love is a primary virtue of the hero, even when he begins as a single or solitary man, as in “Poseidon.”

Religion and Spirituality

In most disaster movies, there are no religious figures, because faith would temper the dread and nullify the suspense. What was interesting about Gene Hackman’s hero in the 1972 film was that he was a priest but of secular religion. In “Poseidon,” there are no religious figures, though religious icons (such as a cross) feature prominently in the story.

Optimism

After chaos, social order is reasserted. In “Poseidon,” as in other movies, the disaster is perceived as brief disturbance from the normal state of things. Totally pessimistic vision without relief or hope is rare in the genre. We know that some of the passengers will perish, but would anyone see “Poseidon” if all the passengers die at the end; survival is built into the genre.