It's just after midnight on New Year's Eve and it's party time on the luxury cruise ship Poseidon. This is quite a boat - it looks like someone broke a chunk off downtown Tokyo, gave it propellers and a hull and put it to sea.
It’s a floating resort for the A-list and only the richest and the most glamourous are aboard. There's professional gambler and adventurer Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), who's earning back the cost of his ticket at the poker tables. There's former mayor of New York Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), whose time is fully occupied trying to keep his teenage daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her boyfriend (Mike Vogel) from getting into mischief. There's also a heartbroken gay socialite (Richard Dreyfuss), a pretty stowaway (Mia Maestro), an obnoxious lounge lizard (Kevin Dillon), a sexy single mum (Jacinda Barrett) and her precocious young son (Jimmy Bennett).
The festivities are in full swing when a rogue wave rolls out of the night: a hundred-and-fifty-foot wall of water that slams into the side of the vessel and capsizes it. Most of the passengers and crew are killed but the ballroom remains watertight and a number of the partygoers struggle to their feet amid the bodies and the wreckage on the ceiling. The ship's captain (Andre Braugher) appeals for calm. He asks his passengers to stay in the ballroom and await rescue. However, Dylan knows something about ships and he doesn't believe the Poseidon will stay afloat long enough for rescuers to arrive. Accompanied by a ragtag group of fellow survivors, he sets off to find a way upwards to the hull.
The Poseidon Adventure, the 1972 Irwin Allen production of which this is a remake, is the best of the seventies disaster movies. It's also the least spectacular. Watching the impressive new Fox special edition DVD the other night, I thought the film looked endearingly cheap. There are few extras, fewer sets, only a handful of action set-pieces and the ship is obviously a model in a water tank. Still, it works like a charm. Limited resources force the movie to rely on its larger than life characters - Gene Hackman as the fiery preacher, Ernest Borgnine as the obnoxious cop and, of course, Shelley Winters as the hefty Jewish grandma. It's fun to watch them bicker their way to the surface.
Wolfgang Petersen's remake shortens the running time by twenty minutes but otherwise the film's motto is more, more, more: more mayhem, more spectacle, faster pace, bigger ship, colossal sets, costly special effects (the ship is entirely computer-generated). No expense has been spared. Instead of Carol Lynley crooning "The Morning After", we get Fergie from the chart-topping Black Eyed Peas singing R'n'B. The budget was $140 million, which would probably have paid for all the seventies disaster films twice over.
This is what we want, isn't it? If we're paying to see a ship capsize, we want to see a gigantic ship slowly spun upside down while the swimming pools on the deck empty and hapless passengers tumble screaming out of their cabins into the sea below. We want to see the survivors crawl through flooded decks, swing across vast, flaming lobbies, and dodge elevators crashing down towards them. Don't we?
Something important is missing from this over-stuffed remake and that's a sense of fun. For all the expense and effort that obviously went into it (the actors must have gone through hell!), it feels half-arsed, like all the work went into the sets and the effects and no one paid much attention to anything else. The guys who designed the ship did a fantastic job. The director and screenwriter seem to have been doing it for the money.
Poseidon is too frenetically paced. At times it feels like Titanic re-edited by Michael Bay. It's gruelling rather than entertaining. Petersen makes matters worse by being needlessly sadistic about killing off the cast and extras. Far too many people are shown being drowned, burned, electrocuted, crushed and thrown to their deaths in lip-smacking detail. In one particularly ugly scene, a character is forced to kick away a terrified companion clinging to his legs for dear life. We see the unfortunate man fall down a shaft, smash into the bottom and then get crushed by a falling lift for good measure. Of course people have to die in disaster movies but what’s the point of making their deaths so cruel and graphic? This isn't Saving Private Ryan, it's a daft summer blockbuster. Couldn't it be a bit lighter?
The action scenes are too numerous and too frequently over the top. By the end of the movie, Josh Lucas’ character is performing superhuman feats. The two most effective scenes are the smallest - a sealed air duct flooding with water and an underwater hatch taking its sweet time to open. In these moments, Poseidon comes close to generating the suspense of its predecessor. The rest of the time, the production is so unnecessarily lavish that it's distracting. You're gawking at the sets when you should be caring about the people standing in them.
It would be hard to care about the characters anyway since they're so thinly written. Wolfgang Petersen is in such a hurry to get to the big wave that he allows only a few minutes to sketch everyone in. It's not enough - we don't feel like we know these people. The details we do learn, such as Richard Dreyfuss being gay and lonely and Josh Lucas having a thing for Jacinda Barrett, don't pay off later on.
The cast doesn't even get to ham it up the way actors are supposed to do in disaster movies. There are no dire warnings about impending disaster, no inspirational speeches, no macho rows over who's in charge. There isn't even a proper argument about whether it's safer to stay in the ballroom. Josh Lucas and company don't try and convince anyone to come with them, they simply leave. Apparently they don't care whether everyone else drowns.
There is one fun character - Kevin Dillon's sleazeball - but he's wasted and Wolfgang Petersen has directed everyone else to act low-key and treat the situation as if it was real. Everything that's wrong with this film stems from the director thinking he could take this nonsense seriously. What happened to Petersen's judgement? He's one of the more reliable big-budget filmmakers, with In The Line Of Fire and Troy to his credit.
And where's the ominous build-up that every disaster movie needs? The reports of an earthquake on the ocean floor? The strange radar readings? In this film, the hundred-and-fifty-foot wave doesn't appear on the radar, it just looms out of the darkness. The Poseidon needs better radar! Maybe Petersen thinks he's eliminating unnecessary padding but what he's doing is taking the fun out of the genre. I love those early signs that something terrible is about to happen - when Paul Newman complains about the lack of sprinklers in the new skyscraper or when Pierce Brosnan finds charred hikers on the slopes of the dormant volcano. They set the mood.
Rogue waves are a real phenomenon, one only recently accepted by scientists. Waves of over a hundred feet tall can indeed rise for no apparent reason in deep water and they can sink supertankers. That deserves some sort of exposition but Poseidon provides none. Most moviegoers will be wondering where the hell that giant wave came from.