Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Thanks to Internet buzz, combined with the old-fashioned kind whispered throughout the usual Hollywood infotainment and party circuits, we all knew ahead of time that Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon was a shamefully dumb and shoddy movie and unlikely to make the truckloads of cash expected by its producers. Of course, when the box office numbers for the first weekend came out and the movie ended up getting trounced by Mission: Impossible 3, which was by then week-old product, it was time for the prognosticators to come out of the shadows and lend credence to the interpretation of a $22 million opening weekend (which was certainly less than what the studio, Warner Bros., was hoping for) as a reflection of audiences' disatisfaction with, or disinterest in the movie, and the die which was cast in the previous weeks was now perceived fact-- Poseidon was a bomb.

Critical reaction was no less savory. Despite good reaction from the likes of Peter Rainer, Lisa Schwarzbaum, William Arnold, David Denby and Sean Burns, the reviews that were paid the most attention were the ones that took the crimes-against-humanity tack, or the ones that insisted, against all evidence in the trailers, that the special effects were terrible, or the ones that allowed the reviewer to trot out his/her worst Das Boot/Perfect Storm-based punnery while making sure we all knew just how much smarter he/she was than the movie under consideration. (Ed Gonzalez writes much more intelligently, if not entirely convincingly, about the film's racial subtext in the virtual pages of Slant.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex, or after arriving there, more precisely: Poseidon turned out to be a brisk and solidly crafted slice of blockbuster entertainment. In a time when some of the most common salvos fired against modern Hollywood epics, like Peter Jackson's King Kong, are accusations of flabbiness and bloat, Petersen's remake is crisp, exciting, well-acted and paced like a 150-foot rogue wave bearing down on its target. In fact, its pace might even be a bit too brisk; the prologue to disaster actually feels underwritten-- there's barely 15 minutes of buildup before the arrival of that wave. And once the ship is fully capsized, the movie skimps on the kind of juicy showboat dramaturgy that comprised the 1972 original's debate between the captain and Gene Hackman's irreverent reverend over whether to climb up or stay put. What we do get, courtesy of screenwriter Mark Protosevich, is some rather inelegant dialogue, the worst of which comes out of the mouth of architect Richard Dreyfuss, a despondent gay man jilted by his lover who rethinks a suicidal jump overboard when he gets a look at that wave. In voicing his support of the idea of climbing up to the hull of the ship, Dreyfuss exclaims, "I'm an architect, and I can tell you, these ships were not made to float upside-down." Admittedly, that's a pretty silly line-- imagine Red Buttons from the 1972 film saying, "I'm a haberdasher, and I can tell you..."-- but I'd be willing to bet it'd be easy to find dumb lines in any randomly chosen big-budget blockbuster of hardier repute than Poseidon-- say, the new installment in X-Men saga, for example. The fact is, the disaster genre is one that is easily condescended to, especially when we're talking about a remake (arguably an unnecessary one at that) of perhaps the most well-liked entry in the entire genre, and dialogue like this does the movie no favors in the eyes of any who are predisposed to despise it.

But once this new movie does get down to its real business (assuming that crafting electrifyingly witty bon mots for its cast to toss around while outrunning a rising level of sea water is not its real business), it exploits the claustrophobia of the situation much more efficiently (and perhaps even a touch sadistically, says this claustrophobe) than did director Ronald Neame's film, and there are two or three squirm-inducing action set pieces that are, without debate, exceptionally well directed. The effects, both computer-generated and those old-fashioned live-action stunts and mechanical sequences that comprise the capsizing of the ship and everything else that follows in the wave's wake, are nightmarishly effective-- I honestly don't understand any of the complaints about the film in this department, except on the level that if the movie is bad, then it must all be bad. (None of the reviews I've read that have claimed deficiencies in Poseidon's special effects have offered up much evidence to support this puzzling claim.) And, as if to settle the flabbiness and bloat argument before it even gets started, the whole thing clocks in at around 99 minutes, some 20 minutes shorter than the original. (To be honest, that relative lack of buildup before the wave hits is a bit jarring-- it's as if Petersen succumbed to impatience, either to his own or to the kind inspired by audience testing scores. It should be fairly interesting to see what the inevitable, and inevitably longer director's cut will look and feel like on DVD.)

Those who still harbor a fondness for that 1972 original (I do) will also undoubtedly miss the scene chewing provided by Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Arthur O'Connell and Stella Stevens et al (I did), and will note with some dissatisfaction the absence of the Christmas tree that handily provided the group's initial climb out of the ballroom. There's really very little made of that exit in the new film-- just a couple of quick toe-holds to the next level, where Lucas, Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell (fireman and ex-mayor of New York City!), comely single mother Jacinda Barrett, her whiny son (who will make you appreciate the matter-of-fact comic timing of Eric Shea) and doomed galley worker Freddy Rodriguez hook up with Russell's daughter (Emmy Rossum), her boyfriend (Mike Vogel), Rodriguez's stowaway girlfriend (Mia Maestro) and fatally obnoxious comic relief Kevin Dillon as Lucky Larry, a card sharp whose name turns out to be very ironic indeed.(His quick dispatch is another point in favor of Petersen's lean, no-nonsense approach.) And as spectacular as the special effects and set design are, as my friend pointed out afterward, without the accompanying visual wit of wandering into, say, a men's restroom and seeing the urinals hanging from the ceiling, there's little to reinforce the essential disorientation, the indigenous surrealism of the idea of climbing through an upside-down world. The innards of this Poseidon are impressively detailed, but they too often call to mind a bombed-out building rather than the telling details of what one might find in the nightmare of a capsized ship.

Along the way characters are dispatched, some-- like Lucky Larry-- we're glad to see go, and some that create some unexpected heartache and ambivalence to swallow along with our popcorn and Diet Pepsi. For Ed Gonzalez, the recognition of the social strata of the cruise ship-- minorities below decks in roles of servitude, rich folks (of varying colors but, as far as the group we will follow, exclusively white)-- is an understandable source of frustration because the film doesn't explore that schism so much as exploit it with the tried-and-true methods recognizable to anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood genre film. (Was the original's exclusively white casting any less offensive, even as it expressed the egalitarian ethos traceable to Paul Gallico's original novel much more successfully than this new film does?) Poseidon skirts this issue in the relationship of Rodriguez and Maestro's characters to that of Dreyfuss, who is (in the film's most shocking moment) forced to cause the death of one, at Lucas' insistence, in order to stay alive himself. (Gonzalez's characterization of the event aligns it closer to murder than simple survival, which is, I think, wrong.) Then, when Dreyfuss subsequently forms a relationship with the surviving member of the couple, neither of them are aware of how Dreyfuss' previous action colors their own growing closeness. Unfortunately, the movie never really follows through on exploring this relationship and casting light on the intended or subtextual meaning, if any, of so casually disposing of the film's only real representatives of ethnicity. For whatever reason, it is a missed opportunity, and Poseidon opens itself up to charges of crass exploitation and indifference in the process of passing it by.

The movie trades off considerations of race and social standing in favor of focusing on Russell's testy relationship with his daughter and her boyfriend, and Lucas's gradual emergence from his shell of self-interest to be revealed as an empathetic human being as he casts himself as protector of Barrett and her son. These are much more obvious, and much safer waters to tread, and not of much interest as drama. Fortunately, Poseidon is mounted so spectacularly and with such brutal efficiency as a piece of action filmmaking that the only real drama that matters is quickly reduced to a basic set of human fears and the audience’s ability to empathize with the simple impulse to survive. I think I would be much more concerned with Poseidon's deficiencies of script and character if I had any real expectation going in that there would be anything substantive to invest in the characters beyond the recognizable signposts that allow them to read as fellow humans on screen. There is empathy to be had with each and every person on screen, however, because of those signposts, and because of actors like Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Freddy Rodriguez, Mia Maestro and Jacinda Barrett, who, despite being saddled with some lumpy lines and having not an ounce of the original cast's juiciness and campy appeal, still always project a measure of dignity that is a signpost itself, one of good actors condescending neither to their material nor their audience-- Russell, one of our best and most underrated actors, stands out quite typically in this regard.

The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of Dillon, or Andre Braugher in a rare gaseous mode as the ship's captain, or the creepy Stacy Ferguson-- Fergie, of the pop group Black Eyed Peas-- whose hip-hop flavored "songs" aren't a patch on Carol Lynley and "The Morning After." There is no shame in enjoying seeing these folks meet their fates, watery or otherwise. Nor should there be in enjoying Poseidon warts and all, a stout, often excruciatingly suspenseful, often clunky, certainly imperfect but ultimately very effective example of the kind of expensive high-concept picture that Hollywood often does well, usually with equal measure of conviction and crass, cynical commercialism. It will replace the Irwin Allen production ("Who will survive?!") in precisely no one's affections, and though it does cast an eye toward them-- Allen's widow, Sheila Allen, in a superb example of the fine art of movie crediting, is listed as "executive producer"-- it doesn't ever seriously attempt a raid on those affections. It is, however, as directed by Wolfgang Petersen with his faithfulness to verisimilitude in representing the claustrophobic terrors of disasters at sea, as indicative of the times in which it was made as the 1972 film was in representing a golden cast of Oscar winners, culled largely from the decimated studio system, as a commercial force and a statement of classic Hollywood values (however debased and corrupt) in the face of the emergence of non-star types like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Ellen Burstyn and, yes, Gene Hackman. Only the names have changed to keep the percentage of the budget designated to the talent at a minimum. However, whether created by CGI or in a studio tank, the wave abides.


Anonymous said...

I agree: I had been excited to see it until the reviews began to emerge, so I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it, despite its dramatic faults. Certainly it makes no sense for anyone to claim the special effects are bad. Funny you should mention the upside-down-urinals scene as an example of the kind of funny/weird thing which might've made this remake work better: I was wishing they'd have that scene as I watched it. But I found it almost unbearably suspenseful and scary. Agreed about Kurt Russell being one of the great underappreciated, and about the actors not condescending to the material. And I laughed out loud at your description of "Fergie" as "creepy"...I was so aware that she was being presented in lingering shots as if she were ultra-sexy, but she just gave me the willies.

Steve C. said...

Anyone who refers, in public, to any part of their person as "my humps" and isn't descended from a dromedary is automatically creepy and weird. Fergie could be the most beautiful woman in the world, but she'd still be creepy.

Fortunately for everyone, she's not pretty, just kind of assembled-looking. And her music sucks. So there's no reason for anyone to pay attention to her ever. Yay!

Anonymous said...

Haha! "...not pretty, just kind of assembled-looking". Perfect. I wish those puffed-up lips would go out of style.