The filmmakers behind Poseidon said they didn’t want to do a simple remake of The Poseidon Adventure, that they wanted to do something different. If by “different” they meant that they were disposing of a coherent story line and any characters we could actually care about, then they succeeded beyond all expectations.
Wolfgang Petersen has made two of his best films, Das Boot and The Perfect Storm, about people facing danger in, under and around water. With Poseidon, he seems to have gone back to that well once too often. This shallow, noisy and pointless exercise in special effects makes the Irwin Allen original look like King Lear.
This film fails where most bad films fall apart, which is at the script level. The screenplay spends as little time as possible introducing us to the characters as if they were embarrassing relations who showed up uninvited for Sunday dinner. At less than 90 minutes, not including credits, it’s not like the film was running too long. This film could easily have withstood another 20-30 minutes spent establishing more fully realized characters, but instead we are given some pretty people to look at for a few minutes before they knock the ship over.
The film’s cast of characters are a laundry list of stock types. Kurt Russell is the former firefighter (and former mayor of New York City), but instead of doing anything anything interesting with that part of his resumé, the movie just focuses on how he disapproves of his daughter’s new boyfriend (and, of course, they’re getting married but haven’t told Dad yet). Josh Lucas is a super-slick gambler and ladies man. Don’t hold your breath waiting for more. That’s about all the characterization he gets. Richard Dreyfuss is a jilted gay man whose plans for suicide are interrupted by the capsizing ship. I wanted to know more about this guy, especially where he got that cell phone that actually works in the middle of the fucking ocean, hundreds of miles from the nearest cell tower!
Some of the actors do a fair job of giving their characters at least the illusion of personality. Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas bring an effortless charisma to their otherwise paper-thin personas, but the rest of the people inhabiting this story are so instantly forgettable and interchangeable that there’s not much for the other actors to grab hold of.
The film comes alive at two points and, not surprisingly, these are special effects showpieces. First, when the ship is capsized by a rogue wave (a real life phenomenon far more interesting than this movie), the percussive violence and resulting terror are shown quite effectively. And when the Poseidon finally, mercifully slides beneath the waves for the final time, there is a certain majesty to that one shot not found anywhere in the actual story. In these moments, Wolfgang Petersen, the master technical filmmaker gets to strut his stuff. Sadly, the script gave him nothing of worth with which fill the other 85 minutes of this movie.