Movie Information

Genre: Disaster Thriller
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Jacinda Barrett, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum, Mike Vogel
Rated: PG-13

There’s a Web site, www.shipshake.com, that has been created to advertise this film, where you can use the arrow keys on your keyboard to rock an S.S. Poseidon in a bottle till it capsizes. It’s a tremendous waste of time, yes, but less so than Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon, and considerably more entertaining.

Petersen’s remake of the much-loved camp-and-cheese 1972 film, The Poseidon Adventure, is a mind-numbing combination of bad writing, nonwriting, characterless characters and tons and tons of state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery.

OK, so “disaster” films have never been known for their depth and have always relied on special effects. Unless we’re talking about an anomaly like Andrew L. Stone’s 1960 epic, The Last Voyage, wherein Stone more or less sank the recently decommissioned Ile De France (he never got past flooding the deck since the ship was being sold for scrap). However, movies of this sort have almost always depended on trying to plunge a toy boat to the depths of a studio tank for the sake of a thrill or two.

Of course, in this age of computerized wizardry, it’s possible — as in this case — for the ship not to exist at all. The end result can be impressive, but there’s a lack of solidity that’s finally less persuasive than a cleverly photographed model. You end up feeling like a passenger on the mythical ship The Magic Christian in the 1969 film of the same name where the vessel only exists as a mock-up in a gigantic warehouse as part of a huge practical joke. Unfortunately, the high points of Petersen’s film are the computer-generated sequences.

A case could be made that Mark Protosevich’s (The Cell) screenplay would have seemed less phony had it too been generated by a computer. While it’s reasonable to expect characters in a disaster film to be two-dimensional, it’s less pardonable when they have trouble seeming even one-dimensional. Sure, what we’re waiting for is the arrival of that “rogue wave” that’s going to turn the ship upside down, but there are limits. If the viewer is going to spend the next 80 minutes watching the main characters scramble for their lives, it’s essential that there’s some reason to care about their fates.

This is even more the case here where the personalities of Petersen’s B-list cast aren’t capable of filling in the gaps in the writing. So you get one sentence characterizations that play like a story pitch intended to be fleshed out later, only no one bothered. Josh Lucas is a cynical professional shipboard gambler; Kurt Russell is a stolid former fireman and ex-mayor of New York (how post-9/ll can you get?); Richard Dreyfuss is an aging gay man who’s suicidal because his boyfriend dumped him; Emmy Rossum is Russell’s daughter with a boyfriend of whom Daddy doesn’t approve, etc. These aren’t merely types; they’re the templates for types. It’s impossible to care what happens to any one of them.

Worse, they behave in ways that are grounded only in furthering the action. Dreyfuss’ character goes from trying to toss himself into the ocean to scrambling for his life faster than a Maseratti goes from zero to 60. Late in the film, the requisite imperiled child (Jimmy Bennett, Firewall) suddenly finds himself trapped in a flooding room behind a grate. Mom (Jacinda Barrett, Ladder 49) asks how him he got there. He doesn’t know — and apparently neither do the filmmakers, except that he’s there in order to be endangered.

The cliches are quick on the draw, too. What do you suppose the life-expectancy of an obnoxious character called “Lucky” (Kevin Dillon, Out for Blood) is? The dialogue is also on par with the rest of the film. Once the ship is upside down and sinking, someone actually asks, “How bad is it?” The response to the news that Russell used to be the mayor of New York City is, “Cool!” Richard Dreyfuss turns out to be an architect who assures the others (owing to his profession) that “these ships weren’t designed to float upside down.” Worse, our intrepid band of would-be survivors all seem to be constantly surprised by the fact that it’s in the nature of sinking ships to fill up with water.

Because the original had a hit theme song, we’re here given parts of songs warbled in the ballroom by Fergie (or Stacy Ferguson) of the Black Eyed Peas. Though unfamiliar with her work, I now have no trouble believing her big hit is called “My Hump.” Her demise is one of the more satisfying moments in the film.

To top it off, the film strangely lingers on the morbidity of it all. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Petersen frames his shots with gruesome positionings of the innumerable dead in a way more suited to a horror film than a mindless actioner. It’s an approach that turns an otherwise merely stupid movie into a vaguely nasty one that stresses the fact that Poseidon presents mass carnage as entertainment. Rated PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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