Saturday, June 03, 2006

Review - Poseidon

Some directors find themselves attached to a particular genre, a particular setting, or a particular period in history; Wolfgang Peterson, it seems, just can’t resist the call of the sea. Peterson made his name with probably the greatest of all sea-based films - his 1981 classic Das Boot - and although he has made a number of subsequent films on dry land, he never seemed quite as happy or confident as when he returned to the ocean in 2000 with The Perfect Storm. Now, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, Wolfgang Peterson is making waves again.

Actually, to be exact, Peterson is only making one wave this time, but it’s a pretty big one.
Poseidon is a remake of campy 70’s disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure; in which an enormous ocean liner was capsized by a rogue wave, and a small band of Oscar-winning actors had to make their way through the upside-down vessel to escape via the hull. Peterson’s version sticks to this smart template (with only one Oscar-winner this time) but he carefully cleaves anything extraneous from the screenplay, until we’re left with a pleasingly streamlined summer blockbuster which overcomes a soggy start to deliver wave after wave of action.

Our first sight of the ill-fated ship is breathtaking. Peterson follows lone jogger Dylan (Josh Lucas) as he runs around the deck, and in doing so he offers us a full 360-degree view of this magnificent liner in all its splendour. It’s a surprisingly graceful opening, but Peterson has difficulty displaying the same grace and style when it comes to introducing a few of the supporting characters. There’s former New York mayor Robert Ramsay (Kurt Russell), who is on board with his teenage daughter Jennifer (played by creepy waxwork Emmy Rossum) and is uncomfortable with her burgeoning relationship with boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel). Elsewhere, Valentin (Freddy Rodríguez) is a cook helping smuggle stowaway Elena (Mia Maestro) on board, and Maggie (Jacinda Barrett) is a single mother who is on board with her son and quickly catches Dylan’s eye.

These characters are introduced to us in a clunky, cheesy and often cringeworthy fashion; and the opening 20 minutes of
Poseidon is almost dead in the water. It’s as if Peterson is desperate to get these introductory niceties out of the way as quickly as possible; the sooner we meet everybody the sooner the director can start drowning them. Fortunately, we don’t have long to wait. Another character on board for this New Year’s Eve voyage is Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), a gay architect who has been jilted by his young lover. Nelson is standing sadly on the deck at midnight, ready to end it all, but just as he’s about to hurl himself overboard he’s interrupted by the small matter of a giant wave heading his way.

This is what we’ve come to see, and
Poseidon doesn’t disappoint. The big moment, when the wave hits, is the very point at which Poseidon suddenly finds its feet. The extraordinary sight of this monstrous wave crashing down upon the ship is brilliantly handled by Peterson; a stunning melding of first-rate special effects and the director’s knack for depicting the destructive force of water. The passengers are tossed helplessly inside the boat as it slowly turns itself over, hundreds of bodies being flung across the screen and meeting their often unpleasant ends. You may balk at the countless anonymous deaths the film so flippantly chalks off during this single sequence; but you’ll probably just be feeling the adrenalin rush it evokes, and thrilling to the sight of Peterson proving exactly why he’s Hollywood’s go-to guy for water-based blockbusters.

Once the chaos caused by the wave’s initial strike has subsided, it’s time for our band of survivors to make their move. Dylan is the ringleader, ignoring the pleas of the captain (Andre Braugher) to stay put and telling anyone who’ll listen that he can find a way out of the ship. All the characters we were introduced to earlier are quick to follow Dylan (even though Josh Lucas surely has one of the
least trustworthy faces in American cinema) and they slowly make their way upwards to the bottom of the ship; getting involved in a series of death-defying situations and trying to keep one step ahead of the slowly rising water level.

The subsequent action is nothing we haven’t seen in this kind of movie before. The characters continually find themselves in tight spots before escaping with seconds to spare, and Mark Protosevich’s screenplay democratically gives everyone an equal share of heroic and cowardly moments. The fate of the characters is mostly rather predictable - particularly in the case of the self-styled “Lucky Larry” (Kevin Dillon), whom most viewers will have tagged as dead meat the moment he appears - but Peterson does have a few surprises up his sleeve as well. An early scene in a lift shaft is given a neat twist, while the unexpected drowning of one character manages to be quite powerful.

Running at almost twenty minutes shorter than the 1973 version,
Poseidon has little room for anything but action, and essentially it’s just one set-piece after another. But Peterson really knows what he’s doing with this material. 25 years ago he tore our nerves to shred by making us feel the awesome power of the ocean enveloping a German submarine, and here he gives us constant reminders of the water pressing on the ship, cracking windows, forcing doors. The action throughout the film is satisfyingly physical, and the best moments are in many ways the least showy. When the characters find themselves trapped in a tight air vent with nowhere to go, their fear feels surprisingly real.

There are undeniably numerous flaws in
Poseidon. The poor characterisation is a major fault, with Lucas and Russell given the bickering Alpha male roles and everyone else feeding off scraps; and the fact that the survivors are all white while a number of black or Hispanic characters die along the way leaves a nasty aftertaste. Performance-wise, Lucas is uncomfortably miscast as the hero and Rossum is as wooden as ever, but Russell and Dreyfuss both give solid displays. The other thing which disappointed me about Poseidon was the fact that Peterson and his production team fail to exploit the visual possibilities of an upturned ocean liner. Instead of making their way through rooms in which everything is upside-down, the cast spend the whole film crawling through various shafts, vents and engine rooms; environments which are grey and indistinguishable whichever way you look at them.

Poseidon is unlikely to replace the original in the hearts of the public, and in all honesty the majority of viewers will probably start to forget it as soon as they leave the cinema; but, in a summer when the blockbusters have failed to really amaze in the desired fashion, the film at least offers a spectacular and entertaining show. You may well quibble about the wooden, cheesy script and one-dimensional characters; but it’s not really worth fighting this kind of stuff. The effects are great, the action is relentless and the film doesn’t outstay its welcome or take itself too seriously. Something exciting always happens when Wolfgang Peterson takes to the sea, and you’ll have plenty of fun if you just go with the flow.