Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Poseidon (2006)

Who's In It: Josh Lucas (Hulk), Kurt Russell (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), Jacinda Barrett (Zero Hour), Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow), and Mía Maestro (Alias)

What's It About: A rogue wave flips over an ocean liner, forcing passengers to make their way up towards the former bottom of the ship where they hope to find rescue.

How It Is: Surprisingly good. When Poseidon hit movie theaters, I couldn't have been more disinterested. My childhood dislike of the original Poseidon Adventure combined with my disaster movie fatigue (which went back to the late '90s after Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, Titanic, etc., etc.) to keep me far away. But having revisited the 1972 Poseidon Adventure and enjoyed it, and having not seen a recent disaster movie in a very long time, the timing was right for me to watch Poseidon with an open mind.

Frankly, watching it so closely after the 2005 Hallmark mini-series also helped. That version was so padded out, so cheaply made, and adapted the original's characters in such unflattering ways that I was impressed when Poseidon didn't make those same mistakes. It's a low bar to step over, but Poseidon does it and delivers some good stuff in the process.

My hopes for the movie rose during the first few seconds of the credits when I was reminded that the director is Wolfgang Petersen. I haven't loved all of Petersen's films, but I have soft spots for Outbreak and Air Force One and there's no denying that he's a capable filmmaker. I was expecting Poseidon to be directed by someone like Roland Emmerich, so I relaxed quite a bit when I saw Petersen's name.

And I relaxed some more when I saw the long, continuous, opening shot of the ocean liner as the camera flies around the outside of the impressive ship, occasionally picking up glimpses of Josh Lucas running on deck. There's a lot of money on screen there, which is a huge relief after the crude simulator-quality animation of the Hallmark mini-series.

The pace of the story is faster than any previous version, starting out on New Year's Eve and letting viewers learn about characters mostly during the disaster rather than through an abundance of buildup and back story. There are some brief introductions before the wave hits, but there are also less characters than in earlier versions, so it doesn't feel tedious.

Speaking of the characters, they aren't nearly as fascinating as those from the original, but Poseidon still has some nice moments with them. Unlike the Hallmark version, Poseidon doesn't use any names from 1972, but there are still some analogues to the originals. Josh Lucas doesn't play a priest, but he is a guy who values strength and a professional gambler used to surviving alone and by his wits. That worldview is challenged though when he finds himself feeling protective of a single mother (Barrett) and her son (Jimmy Bennett, who played young Jim Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek reboot).

Richard Dreyfuss' character is the most interesting. He's a gay man who's just been dumped and is heartbroken to the point of considering suicide. He's actually on deck and climbing over the rail when he sees the enormous wave rushing towards the ship, which immediately kicks his will to live into gear and sends him rushing inside to warn the other passengers. That will is still strong later when he joins the group of hopeful escapees and does something heinous to another person in order to save himself. And the guilt of that action then pushes him into protecting a terrified woman (Maestro) even when doing so puts himself in jeopardy. The film doesn't pull everything out of Dreyfuss' character arc that it could, but the arc is still there and it's a good one, even if Red Buttons' similar, but more honorable character was more touching in '72.

The group of characters that didn't work for me was Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, and Mike Vogel (Cloverfield). Russell is Rossum's father, while Vogel is the boyfriend to whom she's secretly engaged. There's a bunch of stuff about when they're going to tell Russell about the engagement and Russell is trying to be the threatening dad, but is mostly just ticking the other two off. All of which comes to a head during the disaster a la Armageddon (or Transformers: Age of Extinction) and yadda yadda yadda. It's great seeing Russell be all tough and actiony during the disaster, but his family's drama is pretty lame.

What saves Russell's character and the others though is that there aren't a lot of obvious parallels to the '72 version. Dreyfuss and Buttons come closest, with Lucas and Hackman being a distant second, but their individual stories are so different that it's not really worth comparing them. That's true of the rest of the movie as well. There are a lot of set pieces from '72 that get repeated exactly in the Hallmark version, but only one or two make it into Poseidon. One that comes to mind is when the group leaves the ballroom against the advice of an authority figure, but even then there's no big confrontation where everyone has to make a decision. The captain (Andre Braugher from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) encourages everyone to stay and wait for rescue, but doesn't try to force it and there's zero drama when the main characters sneak off on their own.

That sounds like criticism - and I admit I was disappointed - but it's indicative of something that is actually a strength of the film. It constantly finds its own way to do things, making it a reimagining of the '72 story rather than a remake. I have no idea which version is more faithful to Paul Gallico's novel or how the book affects the decisions made by Irwin Allen and Wolfgang Petersen, but Poseidon is different enough that it works as almost a whole new story that just uses the same concept. Taken that way, it's better than most other modern disaster films and has enough going for it (like an escape plan with an actual hope for survival at the end) that I like it quite a bit.

Rating: Four out of five dashing gamblers

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