Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Who's In It: Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck), Rutger Hauer (Bladerunner, The Hitcher), Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy), C Thomas Howell (Red Dawn, The Hitcher), and Alex Kingston (Doctor Who)

What It’s About: Terrorist activity 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: As much as I liked the original Poseidon Adventure, I don’t think that remaking it into a three-hour miniseries is necessarily a doomed proposition. Making the disaster the result of terrorism is a valid way to update the plot and while the original didn’t need more pre-disaster time with its characters, I imagine that there’s a way to do that without hurting the overall story. It’s just too bad that Hallmark/NBC didn’t figure out what that was.

I haven’t read the novel that the original was based on, so I don’t know how much of Hallmark’s version is a new adaptation of the book and how much is a remake of the earlier film. There are a few characters and set pieces that are the same in both movies, but that doesn’t tell me anything. I’m going to refer to it as a remake, but that may or may not be accurate, depending on how you define it. But wherever you come down on that, the 2005 version is sadly a shadow of the 1972 one.

The characters are an easy way to compare the two. A priest still acts as one of the leaders of the escape group, but instead of Gene Hackman’s unorthodox minister to the strong, Rutger Hauer’s character is written as a conventional, if surprisingly actiony clergyman. Hauer does an excellent job with the role and there are moments that remind me of the emotional depth of his work in Bladerunner, so it’s not a bad character by any means. He’s just not written as provocatively as Hackman’s version.

Another example is the pair of unaccompanied minors from the original. In 2005, they’re very much accompanied by bickering parents who have scheduled the cruise as part of marriage therapy. When Mom (soap star Alexa Hamilton) turns the voyage into a working trip, Dad (Guttenberg) retaliates by having an affair with the ship’s unbelievably forward massage therapist (Nathalie Boltt from Doomsday and District 9). In the original, there’s a great dynamic between the kids as they try to take care of each other, but the miniseries turns their story into a tired drama about an affair.

The miniseries almost finds a way to give that plot life by having Guttenberg and Boltt’s characters in bed when the disaster strikes, so that they have to travel together to find Guttenberg’s family. There’s some great awkwardness in that situation and it ramps up even more once they find the family and everyone has to figure out what to do now that they’re forced to survive together. Unfortunately, all that tension is let off earlier than I wanted when one of the members of the triangle conveniently dies.

Deaths are a problem in the miniseries. Where the deaths in the ’72 version all felt random and real, too many in ’05 feel like they’re just tying up plot threads. I won’t spoil anything by mentioning specific examples, but in spite of the extra time we get with these characters, their lives feel cheaper in the miniseries.

The worst thing the remake does to one of the original characters concerns the purser who encourages passengers to stay in the ballroom and wait for rescue. In ’72, he’s well-meaning, but misguided, and there’s believable tension as people have to make the choice between the ballroom and venturing into unknown territory with Gene Hackman. The miniseries removes all ambiguity about that decision though. The purser doesn’t just have an obnoxious personality, he’s a bona fide villain who’s been stealing painkillers from the ship’s doctor and is now hoarding them from injured people while stridently insisting on being in charge. He’s a ridiculous, moustache twirling cartoon of a character.

One character that actually improves in the remake though is Adam Baldwin’s Mike Rogo (played in ’72 by Ernest Borgnine). Instead of a cop, he’s a sea marshal who’s directly responsible for the safety of the passengers and crew. The miniseries goes too far by piling an offscreen, troubled marriage onto him in addition to his immediate problems, but Baldwin’s great as the glowering authority figure, especially when he’s playing against Hauer’s more gentle leadership.

As long as I’m mentioning Hauer again, the miniseries’ biggest crime is putting him in the same movie with C Thomas Howell (who plays the ship’s doctor) and never allowing them to revisit their chemistry from The Hitcher. I fantasized about some kind of cheesy acknowledgment between their two characters, but I would’ve been thrilled with just a meaningful scene featuring them. They barely interact at all.

Other than the characters, the miniseries’ biggest problem is trying to fill time with an outside rescue mission. The ’72 film kept a lot of tension by leaving the characters in the dark about whether or not there actually was rescue for them if they made it to their destination. The ’05 miniseries shows every step of that operation. But I don’t miss that extra tension as much as I just resent being pulled away from the main action to watch people in control rooms talk about how they’re trying to get a SEAL team to the Poseidon before it goes under.

It helps that one of the main coordinators of the rescue is Alex Kingston, but her character is as frustrating as she is fun to watch. As the miniseries ends and everyone is celebrating the rescue of the survivors, she can’t participate because she’s too upset over the thousands who weren’t saved. That’s a valid thing to be distressed about, but it’s also a weird, anticlimactic moment when she’s completely unappreciative of the very thing the rest of the story has been about: the survival of this small group of people. Because the story has been so distracted with easy villains and plot-ordained deaths, it hasn’t spent enough time representing the human tragedy that should have permeated the entire story. So it tacks this on at the end as a sloppy reminder.

Rating: Two out of five Father Battys.

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