Is "Poseidon" the new "Titanic"? Is Richard Dreyfuss the new Shelley Winters? (No, and sort of.)
WERE IN TROUBLE NOW: Mike Vogel, left, Emmy Rossum, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Mia Maestro play passengers trapped in a luxury liner after it turns upside-down in a storm. (Claudette Barius)
Supposedly, the film's back story was cut to a nub because it wasn't playing. Or maybe Petersen and writer Mark Protosevich didn't play with it enough before sailing, and it died of neglect. More than characters, dialogue and lighting, here Petersen is interested exclusively in suspense of the will-he-or-won't-he-be-crushed-by-that-falling-flaming-elevator variety. It's "Das Perfect Boot" — with the characters compressed to wafers. And I mean that both ways.
Not that one begrudges the major luxury cruise brands from shying away from product placement, but seriously, for a floating pleasure-dome, the Poseidon is a little on the grim side. If I were a passenger, I'd demand to speak with Kathie Lee. Where are all the fun activities? The five-star gourmet dining experiences? The rock-climbing walls? The magic acts? The all-you-can-eat buffets? And why don't we ever get a grand tour of the facilities before disaster strikes? I don't think I glimpsed so much as a porthole, never mind any of the touching "Love Boat"-style introductions intrinsic to the genre. Honestly, if not even one homely, overweight couple is going to announce that they're celebrating their 50th anniversary/longed-for retirement/second honeymoon and whip out pictures of the grandkids, I'm just not going to care. And where, for the love of God, is the put-upon cabin crew?
As it happens, on the Poseidon, only those passengers who resemble recognizable actors matter. In the brief initial moments before disaster strikes, we meet Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), steely jock, as he jogs along the deck and past the cabin of young lovers Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) and Christian (Mike Vogel). The youngsters are necking provocatively on the couch of her father's enormous crib and fretting about how to inform him of their engagement. Dad is Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), a former firefighter turned former mayor of New York and a most inopportune barger-inner. He thoroughly disapproves of the match, and yet it remains unclear what the three of them are doing on a cruise together. Pouring himself a Scotch, he insists that Christian quit making him feel old by calling him "sir," then hits the kids with the "technically, you're still under my roof" speech. Jennifer fires back with "I'm over your patronizing tone," and stalks off. And yet, if father can't patronize, really, who can?
Dylan, meanwhile, meets a fetching young stowaway, Elena (Mia Maestro), who is bunking with a waiter named Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez) in exchange for free passage. Richard Nelson (Dreyfuss) is traveling alone, having just been abandoned by his longtime lover — we learn that he is gay, dumped and loaded in a single swoop, as he orders a $5,000 bottle of wine for his business associates, whose diverse and duly shocked faces we never see again.
Just before midnight, when travelers will cheerfully endure a pedantic but portentous toast to the god of the ocean delivered by Capt. Bradford (Andre Braugher), Dylan — who turns out to be a Navy veteran turned professional poker player — meets Robert at the poker table. (Kevin Dillon, as the drunk sexist in a ruffled tuxedo shirt therefore-he-must-die role, is also there.) He cleans up at the table, then bumps into 9-year-old Conor (Jimmy Bennett), channeling the role of Joey in "Airplane!", and his saucy single mom Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett).
Little do the passengers know that, up in the control room, the chief officer is getting a funny feeling. A 150-foot high "rogue wave" (they exist, apparently, no matter how dubious their nomenclature) has appeared out of nowhere. There's not enough time even for a rushed scientific explanation at top volume before he and his crew are sent crashing into every available surface.
The ship flips over in an instant, making a grisly tourist omelet of the revelers. Capt. Bradford assures the survivors that they'll be safe if they remain in the ballroom and wait for help, but Dylan, who is as roguish as the CGI wall of water that's turned their whole world upside down, decides to high-tail it to the hull. Jimmy asks to be taken along, and before Dylan knows it, he's shimmying up the center of the vessel followed by a smothering single mom, a precocious weird kid, a heartbroken gay architect, a stowaway, a waiter and Romeo and Juliet.
What follows are tunnels, hatches and dead-ends, mostly. But what counts, as they say, is the journey, not the destination. In the few hours it takes to reach the outside, bonds are formed, and ... you know the drill. On the bright side, the action is tense and relentless, and attending a screening should obviate the need for a manicure. It's possible that some of the extended breath-holding it inspires is due to the extended underwater sequences, but you've got to take your adrenaline-boosting enjoyment where you can get it.
Also, vast stores of know-how are discovered. I don't know what it is about disaster movies these days, but it seems you can't trap a group of lay people in an exploding death trap without watching them whip out all manner of latent engineering knowledge. It's impressive, especially to someone like me who can never remember which side of the car the gas tank is on. And it justifies the manly jumbo setting (upside-down, the cruise ship looks a lot like a U-boat), which, given the size of the group we're supposed to care about, could just as easily have been an overturned minivan. And that reminds me, isn't there something perverse and nihilistic about trapping a reveling herd in an over-decorated deathtrap while the cute and famous scramble to safety? I mean, it's just harder to care about Emmy Rossum's love problems after several thousand nameless victims have been wiped out in an instant.
Still, it's one of "Poseidon's" few saving graces that the surviving cast members are drawn from lists further down the alphabet. A-listers' inherent right to survive before all others makes them harder to root for, I always find. It's the up-and-comers and stars in their waning years who know how to make a long, sweaty climb out of a sinking fireball feel relatable.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense, prolonged sequences of disaster and peril
A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Director Wolfgang Petersen. Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, based on the novel by Paul Gallico. Producers Wolfgang Petersen, Duncan Henderson, Mike Fleiss, Akiva Goldsman. Director of photography John Seale. Editor Peter Honess.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In general release.