Review: Poseidon

It's New Year's Eve on the enormous cruise ship Poseidon, and the guests are in the midst of a lavish celebration; however, catastrophe strikes when an immense rogue wave crashes into the ship, overturning it, and sending hundreds of passengers to their doom as glass shatters, decks explode, and flooding water begins to drag the ship to the ocean floor. Deciding they want to try and escape the sinking ship, a small group of passengers (including Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum, and Jacinda Barrett) attempts to make it to safety, but soon finds impenetrable obstacles and death seeping in from all sides.

1972's "Poseidon Adventure" has nestled itself warmly in the bosom of nostalgia. The film hasn't aged particularly well, but it epitomizes a neat little spark of old fashioned Hollywood pageantry, and it's generally accepted as the picture that kicked off the '70s era disaster film genre. The only logical reason to try and tell this story again would be if a filmmaker came armed to the teeth with the latest in special effects to better demonstrate the awesome sight of a cruise ship violently turned upside down.

Director Wolfgang Petersen looks to be the right man for the job, having already crafted two water-based thrillers: the 1981 submarine classic "Das Boot," and the blockbuster, "The Perfect Storm." Petersen is an exceptionally skilled visual filmmaker, and "Poseidon" (IMDb listing) leaves ample room for the director to plan out scene after scene of elaborate demolition and mass death on an extraordinarily mammoth level, making the original film look about as complex as a toy boat in a dirty bathtub. "Poseidon" benefits wildly from the technological advances in computer imagery and stuntwork. While it doesn't share the carefully designed, respectfully paced chaos of the 1972 film, it exceeds it with utter mayhem and eye-popping moments of destruction.

Petersen captures the horror of "Poseidon" with a concentration on panic and claustrophobia, adding a whole new level of tension to the story by having the ship slowly sink into the frigid ocean as our heroes make their way to the bottom (or is it the top?). While Petersen keeps the action moving at lightening speed, he also depicts the constricted, agonizing moments of survival. A heart stopping film highlight features the survivors attempting the impossible by wiggling their way through snug air ducts, looking to beat the unforgiving rising waters, and of course finding numerous complications along the route. The director knows how to hammer tension out of the moment, and when "Poseidon" concentrates on being a tight-lipped, full-throttle disaster film, it's persuasive and exquisite snuff entertainment.

The one crucial component that the new "Poseidon" doesn't share with its forefather is time. Running just over 90 minutes, Petersen is searching for the larger picture of summer escapism, using a sprightly pace to help nurse the tension. It's only a cool fifteen minutes into the picture before the wave smacks the ship, leaving little time to expand on the main characters. Writer Mark Protosevich ("The Cell") is left to find brief openings in the action to shoehorn bits and pieces of character introduction and backstory, but his dialog is positively dreadful.

"Poseidon" becomes unbearably clunky whenever the actors slip exposition between gulps of air. It's one thing to use stereotypes and one-dimensional characters to paint a bigger portrait of endurance (it has been, and will continue to be, a staple of disaster cinema). Petersen doesn't allow time for even the thinnest of characterizations, and it makes "Poseidon" look amateurish and cheesy when out of nowhere characters declare their vocations, romantic aspirations, or family life while outrunning fireballs or rising waters. The 1972 version wasn't exactly a model of screenwriting genius, but at least it stopped to smell the roses. Petersen is too fixated on his pandemonium to gently encourage the roles past an elementary level, robbing great actors like Russell and Dreyfuss of depth, and making unresolved talent such as Rossum, Lucas, and Barrett look even more unprofessional.

Filmfodder Grade: B-