Poseidon

on May 12, 2006 by Ray Greene
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When director Ronald Neame's "The Poseidon Adventure" came out in 1972, the Hollywood addiction to spectacle that has governed studio priorities for three decades was still a few years in the future. The early '70s are rightly remembered as a kind of flowering of artistic seriousness for American movies -- a time of Francis Coppola's "Godfather" breakthrough and Robert Altman's greatest achievements, when "New Hollywood" directors like Arthur Penn, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin loomed so large as young "auteurs" that it took a sharp eye to spot what would prove to be a filmmaking generation's collective feet of clay. The zeitgeist shift of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" hadn't happened yet, which made Neame's "Poseidon" picture, and the "disaster movie" cycle it launched, oases of old-fashioned bigscreen "entertainment" at a time when many directors were trying to make "statements" instead.

It's possible to see Neame's film -- a workmanlike movie by a seasoned pro with a great sense of pacing but no real stylistic signature of his own -- as benefiting from this situation in two directions at once. Audiences flocked to it, gratified by producer Irwin Allen's Cecil B. DeMille-like ability to mix old-fashioned story values with epic carnage in the forms of tidal waves and capsized ocean liners. At the same time, and despite the hammy star turns from the likes of Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters, there was just enough of a "New Hollywood" frisson to some of the characters and actors in the original "Poseidon Adventure" that the picture achieved a shorthand variation on the character depth more ambitious filmmakers of the period were conveying in more complex surroundings.

Most sorely missed in Wolfgang Petersen's new remake "Poseidon" is Neame's "New Hollywood" lead, Gene Hackman -- not only because there isn't an actor in Petersen's rather able cast who can touch Hackman when it comes to maintaining plausibility in implausible circumstances, but because there's also not a single character half as interesting as Hackman's belief-challenged Catholic priest from the original flick. Instead, we get a parade of ciphers so thinly scripted that it's impossible to work up much anxiety about what happens to them, in a film whose pacing is so abrupt and whose scenes are so truncated that "Poseidon" has obviously been reworked to its brisk 97-minute run time merely to cram a few extra screenings into its opening weekend.

The characters in "Poseidon" are uninteresting enough that it's hard to lament the overt abridgement of their interactions this recutting represents. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich has departed completely from everything but the conceit of Paul Gallico's source novel, replacing Gallico's stock characters with even less involving stick figures. "Poseidon's" passengers only come even half-alive when they do something startlingly callous, as when Richard Dreyfuss' allegedly sensitive gay businessman doesn't even bother to look for the entourage he brought along under false pretenses after the ship rolls over, or when Dreyfuss is convinced by two-fisted architect Josh Lucas to literally kick the Latino kitchen worker clinging to his leg down a fiery elevator shaft, saving himself at the expense of the man who just led the principal cast to its first perch of momentary safety.

Petersen's previous picture on a similar subject was "Das Boot," the story of a Nazi U-boat in wartime, and a film wrongly mistaken by some for a political statement upon its original release. As derivative works by noteworthy filmmakers sometimes do, "Poseidon" makes a viewer familiar with Petersen's career revisit better days, and realize that "Das Boot," for all its manifold glories, was essentially trading on action and disaster movie underpinnings that were not so very different from "Poseidon's." Petersen seems to instinctively realize the sad and tatty parallels -- there are few epics as claustrophobic as "Das Boot," and fewer big summer movies which play so often in close-up and have so many scenes inside constrictive environments as "Poseidon" does.

Petersen is too fine a filmmaker to let "Poseidon" sink completely, though he does seem to have difficulty conveying the easy sense of the ship's geography that came so readily to Neame. Petersen does almost nothing with "The Poseidon Adventure's" most Hitchcockian conceit, which is that a topsy-turvy world inherently lacks user-friendliness to a surreal and lethal degree. Though filled with coursing seawater and columns of flame, his ship doesn't much feel like it's upside-down -- perhaps because his protagonists stick to settings like the insides of ballast tanks and electrical corridors, for which the viewer has no visual frame of reference. The scene where the wave rolls the ship is exactly what, in the age of digital imaging, any audience eager for computerized destruction will expect it to be. Starring Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Emmy Rossum. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Mark Protosevich. Produced by Wolfgang Petersen, Duncan Henderson, Mike Fleiss and Akiva Goldsman. A Warner Bros. release. Thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril. Running time: 97 min

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