No one can argue with Wolfgang Petersen’s impressively damp pedigree. The director of “Das Boot” and “The Perfect Storm” knows his H20, so he would seem to be the perfect choice to helm a remake of 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure.”
Whether such a remake was necessary in the first place is a moot question at this point, so let it go.
As in the original, it’s New Year’s Eve on the cruise ship Poseidon. The crowds are festive, the champagne is flowing, and none other than Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas is performing in the main ballroom. Well, at least the champagne is flowing. Meanwhile, we’re given a scant 15 minutes to meet the principal characters: ex-fireman and former NYC mayor Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), mysterious gambler Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), single mother Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett) and her son Conor, recently jilted gay businessman Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), and the rest (Ramsey’s daughter and her fiancé, the Latina stowaway, the drunken lout). After this whirlwind intro, the Poseidon is slammed by a “rogue wave” and rolls over. This takes a bit of time, allowing us to marvel at the myriad ways in which a human body can meet its end, provided the body in question is – in fact – stuck in a foundering cruise ship.
A small group of survivors, led by Ramsey and Johns (effectively bifurcating Gene Hackman’s character from the original), elect to leave the supposedly safe confines of the ballroom and make their way to the top (formerly bottom) of the ship and find a way out. The rest of the film is devoted to this improbably attractive assemblage (no Shelley Winters or Ernest Borgnines here) struggling through fire and water to reach safety. Through it all, some will die (I won’t divulge who, but let’s just say you don’t want Dreyfuss’ character in front of you), some will survive, and many more will have families receiving a fat settlement check from the cruise line when all is said and done.
Clocking in at barely over an hour and a half, the biggest threat to “Poseidon’s” appeal is not Fergie’s singing (though I still suspect the ship willingly gave itself up to the wave rather than allow her off-key caterwauling to echo through the hallways for another minute), Dillon’s hammy acting, or even sinking into the briny depths. Rather, it’s the almost complete lack of character development on display. For example, we’re told Ramsey was the former mayor of New York City. What isn’t explained is why he quit, or where he got the money to book a suite on the ship and play high stakes poker. Johns is a professional gambler and loner? How did he get that way? What does Nelson do for a living? What happened to Conor’s father? In short, why should we give a flying f**k about any of these people?
It’s painfully obvious that huge swaths of backstory were scythed from the final cut in order to give us a leaner and more intense picture, and to an extent it works. The actual capsizing scene is impressively done, showing us a much wider array of carnage than in the original, and several of the escape scenes are suitably tense. Petersen adroitly melds everyone’s fear of deep water with the ordeal of having to navigate through a series of confined spaces, which makes for a few anxious moments.
In the plus column, “Poseidon” is a tightly-paced action movie that doesn’t depend too much on special effects for its thrills. The problem remains the characters themselves, who – in addition to being a bit…ethnically homogenous (read: the whitest group of disaster survivors since that other ocean liner sank in 1912) – are simply too thinly drawn. When the audience finds itself pulling for a character simply because the actor in question also played Jack Burton in “Big Trouble in Little China” (as I found myself doing), you’ve got a problem.