May, 2006, Thriller

Directed by:Wolfgang Petersen

Starring:Kurt Russell, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Lucas, Jacinda Barrett, Richard Dreyfuss, Jimmy Bennett, Emmy Rossum, Mike Vogel, Mía Maestro, Stacy Ferguson, Andre Braugher, and Kevin Dillon

Summer blockbusters are like the newest ride at an amusement park, feverishly promising unparalleled thrills which rarely match the hyped-up expectations of those who buy the tickets to experience them. But given the remarkable advances in movie-making technology over the last 10 or 20 years, old movie chestnuts can be repackaged in interesting ways; the Titanic’s story had been filmed a handful of times before director James Cameron’s lavish, visually riveting 1997 version. So why not dust off The Poseidon Adventure, (that 1972 exercise in camp featuring balding anti-heroes Gene Hackman and Earnest Borgnine along with the literally bloated Shelly Winters) and put it in the hands of a director with a proven track-record at sea?  

That’s just what the producers of Poseidon did in attracting Wolfgang Peterson, (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) along with a mixture of familiar and fresh Hollywood faces to tell this tale of a gigantic ocean liner capsized by a giant rogue wave. The current generation of cruise ships are much bigger and more sophisticated than those of 30 years ago of course, but video images of the last year’s tsunami in Southeast Asia leave no doubt about the lethal potential of the sea. Mr. Peterson and his colleagues seem to have bet on a sure thing. 

Peterson’s Das Boot, the gripping tale of an ill-fated German submarine in the waning days of WW II, just may be the very best sea-faring movie ever; it’s attention to detail, (from food supplies to air quality) cunningly employed to induce a nerve-wracking feeling of claustrophobia at being confined in tightly compressed quarters deep below the ocean’s surface. In that film, the director made every sound and each movement of the ship’s crew convey an immediacy of experience that placed the audience in the bowels of that tiny craft as surely as if they’d actually been there. Armed with a much bigger budget and lots of sophisticated computerized technology, you would think that Peterson could make lighting strike twice. Instead, he’s just turned out a move rather like a recently introduced amusement park ride; better at tease than delivering the goods.

Despite the presence of elaborate, well-crafted sets which employ a number of suitably impressive props, Peterson and his cinematographer don’t begin to capture, as Titanic did nine years ago, the sense of scope which a story like this should contain; instead of tracing the fates of a good many of its innumerable passengers and crew members at various locations on this floating hotel, the director selects fewer than 10 from a New Year’s Eve party in the grand salon and turns immediately to follow their attempt to ascend through their upside-down world in order to escape from the ship’s bottom before it sinks to the ocean floor. The action moves so quickly to this random assortment of characters, (a card sharp, a stow-away, a single mom and her plucky son, a failed politician, a gay architect pining for his lover etc.) that the script has no time to provide reasons why the audience should care about any of them. 

Peterson works best in confined spaces and as he puts his would-be survivors in various tight spots, he succeeds in generating some fitful suspense, but in forgoing a wider perspective, Poseidon suffers badly; there’s no appropriate recognition of the scale of this huge tragedy, just the travails of a few poorly-defined people frantically racing to save their own necks while ignoring the many hundreds more dying all around them. 

Given the constraints of script and story, it would be churlish to dwell on the fitful performances of leads Josh Lucas, (Sweet Home Alabama, Glory Road) Kurt Russell, (Miracle, Dark Blue) and Richard Dreyfus, (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Lucas is at the beginning of what will probably be a long career while Russell and Dreyfus are just as surely nearing the end of theirs, but their involvement here provides nothing more than the opportunity to pick up a paycheck. The rest of the cast is forgettable and it’s especially galling to see a fine actor like Andre Braugher reduced to a few sad-eyed expressions and banal lines in his brief role as Poseidon’s captain.   

The original was technically impressive for its time and as corny as the lyrics from Oklahoma’s score; Peterson’s remake is curiously unremarkable in terms of visual appeal and provides characters about as compelling as a bowl of sodden breakfast cereal. Unless you want to witness the sad decline of an interesting action director, this is one you can skip, on big screen and small. 

In the wake of last week’s disappointing MI-III debut, this summer’s launch of big Hollywood spectacles is off to a very slow start indeed. 


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