Wolfgang Petersen just has no luck these days. The director who gave us Das Boot, Enemy Mine, Air Force One and The Perfect Storm is wading back into the water with Poseidon, and it seems nobody wants to swim along. Sure, after a few weeks in theaters the film has made its money back (or most of it anyway), and there’s always overseas market, the IMAX screens, and the DVD releases. But the mass appeal is gone. Even for a remake, Poseidon is not faring very well, with either critics or audiences, and it’s a real shame. Here is a movie that’s been sold as an action flick, but has so much more to offer – perhaps a credit to stars, or writers – and many of us are going to miss it completely.
I went to see Poseidon because I love disaster movies. Especially ones based around water. Titanic was a wet dream, even with the annoying male lead, and the sappy “run around the big ship” romance. The endless documentaries are a marvel, and other similarly themed movies (Perfect Storm, The Abyss, Open Water, Deep Blue Sea) are a great escape – regardless of the quality or entertainment value. Water is massive, it’s stubborn, and it adapts to any shape. Sure, these are all well-known facts, but in the hands of a capable filmmaker, they can become exceptional movie sequences, ones that people are going to remember for decades. Poseidon really wants to rank up there with the best of the water disaster films, but it gets bogged down in its own luxury. Too many effects, and too much time spent watching the ship fall apart. Especially, if the stories and characters are compelling and well-rounded.
The story is about luxury cruise ship that gets hit by a rogue wave, turns upside down and slowly sinks in the middle of an ocean, on a New Year’s Eve. A group of passengers led by an unlikely duo of a respected former city mayor (Kurt Russell), and a rugged, selfish brute (Josh Lucas) decides to climb to the “bottom” of the ship and come to the surface, instead of waiting for rescue at the bottom of a massive, sinking beast. Formulaic, but it gives us a handful of people with one motivation, and plenty of time to get the character development going. Richard Dreyfuss plays a gay man who’s taking a dumping very hard; Emmy Rossum plays the mayor’s daughter, who’s always a little girl in his eyes, even though she’s just got engaged, and is waiting to break the news. Mia Maestro has sneaked into the cruise ship to spend New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend, and … well, you get the idea.
Yes, all formulas, and archetypes, but consider dozens of action flicks that will use bad formulas, predictable twists, unrealistic heroes and villains, and terrible writing. Poseidon is better than those other films. There’s a great line in there, that’s delivered without over-acting, or tears or high-pitched screams: “If you don’t shake him off right now, you both will die.” After which the man promptly begins to kick another man who’s holding to his legs. Kicking and crying “I’m so sorry”. That’s compelling. If a movie has enough time to bring together and bond a few strangers, and shortly afterwards force them to savagely claw their way to the surface, and still feel terribly shitty about this, it’s a movie worth watching. We’re not watching cardboard cutouts getting whacked one by one by laws of physics – we’re watching people trying to survive, and move, move higher before the entire ship falls apart, and is swollen by the ocean. We care for them, even though we just met them half an hour ago.
The movie’s only problem, and that’s a biggie – is over-reliance on special effects. Sure, things look cool when they blow up and burn, but with a cast like this, and with a clear, narrow purpose you don’t need eye candy. Just follow these people with a camera, and let them deliver the characters. I wanted to hear more dialogue, and was interested in their back-stories (I guess I’m being spoiled by shows like Lost, with its extensive character backgrounds), rather than another damn contraption that they need to cross, or swim through. Yes, these contraptions make up a portion of the movie, but they are too elaborate, too flashy. And, in a few cases, you can tell it’s computer animated. And that’s where the magic fizzles.
Poseidon is not a great action film, and neither it is a great thriller. However, in a short span of 90 minutes (very good for a summer action movie), it delivers a handful of interesting characters, gives us 3-4 amazing sequences, and plenty of thrills to last until our next ocean vacation. On the way out I was hoping that the DVD version will have a bit more of the characters, and a bit less of the action. I believe the wrong stuff was left on the cutting room floor. The movie can be better, and no, the water theme is not used up yet. Just see for yourself.