Director : Wolfgang Petersen
Screenplay : Mark Protosevich (based on the novel by Paul Gallico)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Josh Lucas (Dylan Johns), Kurt Russell (Robert Ramsey), Jacinda Barrett (Maggie James), Richard Dreyfuss (Richard Nelson), Jimmy Bennett (Conor James), Emmy Rossum (Jennifer Ramsey), Mike Vogel (Christian), Mía Maestro (Elena Gonzalez), Andre Braugher (Captain Michael Bradford), Kevin Dillon (Lucky Larry), Freddy Rodríguez (Marco Valentin)
The disaster genre, specifically as formulated and perfected by producer/director Irwin Allen in the early 1970s, has to be one of the most masochistic of film genres. After all, its primary goal is to get the audience to sympathize with a group of ordinary people trying to survive extraordinarily bad circumstances, all of whom suffer terribly and many of whom die violently (albeit usually heroically and sacrificially).
One way to lessen the masochistic awfulness of the genre's basic device is to pitch the terrible circumstances just above reality. The key is to create a scenario that is believable, but just outrageous enough that the audience won't be genuinely concerned that it might happen to them (which is why, post-9/11, I would be quite surprised if anyone wanted to re-make 1974's The Towering Inferno). The pinnacle of this dramatic balancing act would have to be the scenario in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, which has been remade to the tune of $150 million by Wolfgang Petersen (Troy) as simply Poseidon. The “disaster” in both films involves an enormous luxury cruise ship that is hit by an unexpected rogue wave and literally turned upside down in the middle of the ocean. The goal of the band of determined survivors is to claw their way to the top (meaning the bottom) of the ship and escape through the propeller tube.
The characters have been quite substantially changed since the 1972 original, which verged constantly on the edge of outright camp under the direction of British veteran Ronald Neame. Petersen's version is much more grim and serious, especially in its depiction of the death and destruction that would occur if an ocean liner were turned upside down. Part of this may be due to Petersen's experience with more realistically violent material like The Perfect Storm (2000) and Das Boot (1982), made in his native Germany, but part of it may have to do with the screenplay, which is the first penned by Mark Protosevich since his debut six years ago with the surreally creepy sci-fi/serial killer hybrid The Cell.
The main characters who are vying for control of the group are Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), a wealthy card hustler/playboy, and Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), an aging former firefighter and mayor of New York City with a history of newsworthy rescues. The rest of the group consists of Robert's teenage daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her boyfriend (Mike Vogel), a young mother (Jacinda Barrett) and her son (Jimmy Bennett), a suicidal gay architect (Richard Dreyfuss), and an illegal stowaway (Mía Maestro). The captain of the ship (Andre Braugher) encourages everyone to stay in the sealed main ballroom and wait for rescue, but Dylan has no patience (plus Dreyfuss's architect points out the obvious: the ship was not designed to float upside down).
Once the action is set in motion, Poseidon maintains a gripping intensity that the 1972 original sometimes lacked. Despite the outlandish scenario, Petersen keeps the action real and grounded, punching it up with millions of dollars of digital effects augmenting gigantic real-life sets. He does allow for some moments of gallows humor, especially in the fate he reserves for a mustachioed lounge lizard named Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon). At the same time, there are moments that are almost terribly grueling, such as the one in which Dreyfuss's character must make the terrible choice to literally kick off another character and send him to his death to avoid being pulled down with him (this would seem to set up a dramatic arc involving the enormous guilt he would feel at saving his own life at the expense of another's, but it's never really developed).
Interestingly enough, with all the money spent on digital effects and huge upside-down sets, the movie's strongest sequence, which has all the characters attempting to crawl through a tiny air duct while water rises beneath them, only to find that the top is closed off, probably cost the least. With canny precision, Petersen evokes immense feelings of claustrophobia, putting us right there with the characters and their feelings of panic and entrapment. You can almost feel the constricting tightness and lack of air. It's a jittery, intense, suspenseful bit of moviemaking that gets you with the kind of old-school techniques that never go out of style, even in the age of CGI.
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All images copyright ©2006 20th Century Fox