While it’s long been established that oil and vinegar don’t mix, the same couldn’t be said about Wolfgang Petersen and seafaring films. At least not until Poseidon.
The German director established his international reputation with the WWII sub flick Das Boot (The Boat) and scored one of his biggest hits with the exciting blockbuster The Perfect Storm; if someone had to stand at the helm of a remake of The Poseidon Adventure, he was an even more logical choice than James Cameron.
And given his enviable track record (he also made Troy and Air Force One), it was logical that Warner Bros. would select this movie to serve as its opening shot of the summer movie season.
Equally as logical, 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the 1972 original, has elected to ride the same wave by re-releasing their film on DVD in a Special Edition packed with audio commentaries, new featurettes and other bonus goodies.
Clearly, Fox has done Warner no favors with its timing. Petersen’s Poseidon isn’t much of a movie, but it appears even more flimsy when placed alongside its venerable predecessor. Make no mistake: The Poseidon Adventure is only a “classic” in the sense that many folks still instantly recognize its title (thus attesting to its longevity), not because it’s some masterwork on the order of a genuine classic like Citizen Kane or Casablanca.
But that’s not necessarily meant as a putdown. The Poseidon Adventure is very much a kitschy product of its time, as readily identifiable of the 70s as, say, the “duck and cover” drills from the 1950s or Members Only jackets during the 1980s.
The much maligned subgenre known as the “disaster flick” began with 1970’s Airport and ended with 1980’s aptly titled When Time Ran Out. In between, audiences were subjected to all manner of catastrophes faced by each picture’s tantalizing mix of A-list and Z-list actors: earthquakes, avalanches, meteors, killer bees, you name it.
Most of these films weren’t especially good -- some were downright awful -- but there was a certain cheery cheesiness about them which allowed for easy digestion. The effects were often of wavering quality, the acting was of even greater wavering quality, and the death sport encouraged by each film (who will live and who will die?) proved to be no more weighty than the high mortality rate in such WWII actioners as The Dirty Dozen or Western sagas like The Magnificent Seven.
The Poseidon Adventure was one of the first disaster flicks and it arguably remains the best. Based on Paul Gallico’s novel, it tracks the efforts of a group of survivors who try to make their way to the surface after an enormous wave flips their luxury cruise ship over with the ease of a plastic sailboat being similarly submerged in a bathtub.
Admittedly, dialogue isn’t this movie’s strong point, and neither are the ripe performances by some of the cast members: Hammy Ernest Borgnine, as a belligerent cop, does enough acting for everybody aboard the damn boat. But other cast members are better than one might expect in this sort of throwaway fun.
Top-billed Gene Hackman, one of the finest actors of his generation -- heck, of any generation -- followed up his Oscar-winning work in The French Connection with a committed performance as the maverick priest who repeatedly questions and challenges God’s authority as he tries to lead his flock to salvation above water. It’s an unusual role brought to life by an excellent performance.
Red Buttons is similarly fine as a health nut whose eternal optimism goes a long way toward keeping the other survivors focused. And while I generally can’t stomach Shelley Winters (Oscar-nominated for this film), she clocks some effective moments as a kvetchy Jewish woman convinced that her ample size will doom her in the fight for survival.
Efficiently directed by Ronald Neame, The Poseidon Adventure also benefits from its spectacular technical attributes, especially its imaginative set design (everything had to be mapped out and then constructed upside down). The Oscar-winning visual effects hold up; the Oscar-winning song “The Morning After” does not. Come next spring, I doubt we’ll be similarly mentioning Poseidon and Oscars in the same sentence, since this is as forgettable as motion pictures can get.
It isn’t awful so much as it’s impersonal -- foregoing the blood, sweat and characters that made the original Adventure come to life, this one’s all about running cardboard people through the CGI paces. Electing to scrap the characters from Gallico’s book and Neame’s film, Petersen and scripter Mark Protosevich instead serve up all-new players. Petersen describes them as “original, contemporary characters,” which I guess is some sort of doublespeak meaning one-dimensional dullards rendered uncomplicated for today’s audiences.
So instead of Hackman’s cipher of a holy man, we get Josh Lucas as a professional gambler who acts tough but really sports an empathic heart. Instead of Borgnine’s fundamentally decent but outwardly obnoxious detective, we get Kurt Russell as a saintly, sin-free father who’s also a retired firefighter and the former mayor of New York.
And God forbid today’s youth market accommodate wheezy old farts like those played by Winters, Buttons and Jack Albertson; here, they’re replaced by a newlywed couple (Emmy Rossum and Mike Vogel) who barely look old enough to vote and a Hispanic hottie (Mia Maestro) who, because she’s the one openly Christian character in this secular Hollywood entertainment, will of course learn that her faith can’t protect her.
The token old guy in the group -- although still a few years away from collecting Social Security -- is 58-year-old Richard Dreyfuss, cast as a suicidal homosexual who learns to love life when faced with that imposing wave. His character’s as square as all the rest.
The sets are lazily conceived -- unlike the detailed work in the first film, these don’t accentuate the topsy-turvy quality of the ship and would look like so much clutter no matter what the angle -- while the effects, while competently realized, all too often look exactly like computer imagery rather than an actual ship parting the waters horizontally and then vertically.
The best segments in the picture, then, are the ones shot in tight close-up, when the characters must break through a grate or navigate an air duct before the water rises above their nostrils. Petersen, who knows all about filming in cramped quarters (Das Boot, Air Force One), finally gets to display his directorial chops in these segments, mustering what little suspense the film has to offer.
Alas, it’s not nearly enough to save this soggy endeavor.