Friday, June 27, 2008

The morbid pleasures of Poseidon (2006)

Hollywood casual mass death can be fun to watch. With disaster films, you rarely get much of chance to know any of the characters well, so there’s less guilt involved as you marvel over huge amounts of people sliding down the decks of careening ships, bumping into the furniture, and dangling on the edge of the guard rails like some massive jungle gym gone astray. I like the scene in Titanic when the entire ship gradually turns vertical in the water, and I remember being very much struck by the original Poseidon Adventure back in 1972, where a large wave flips over a cruise ship, converting a glittery New Year’s Eve party into a formally dressed fight for survival as the inverted ballroom starts to flood. The 1972 film is basically extravagant cheese, the Love Boat with corpses, but it has visual flair, lots of fun levels that foreshadow the challenges of video games, and a post-Watergate sense of revolt against any establishment figures who recommend that just stay calm down below and wait for help.

The remake Poseidon begins well, but it views like Titanic in reverse. Many of the best disaster scenes occur right towards the beginning, and director Wolfgang Peterson (of Das Boot fame) has difficulty maintaining a plausible tone as a small band of random people try to work their way up the inverted ship.

In other words, the top notch production values keep getting undermined by the B movie script. Early on we meet Kurt Russell as Robert Ramsey concerned about his petulant daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) sneaking off to sleep with her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel). Josh Lucas stars as Dylan Johns, the handsome lone gambler who initially doesn’t care about anyone else, but reluctantly teams up with Robert and a few others to climb out of the ballroom before the water comes crashing through the windows. I’ve seen Josh Lucas star in four films now (along with Stealth, Glory Road, and Sweet Home Alabama), and he always comes off as a charming but lightweight lead who doesn’t leave much of an impression. We also get to know a boy (Jimmy Bennett), his mother (Jacinda Barrett), and an aging Richard Dreyfus who plays a gay fellow named Richard who is broken up and suicidal over the loss of his lover. The filmmakers cleverly cast the Black Eyed Peas lead singer Stacey Ferguson as the New Year’s Eve singer, so we can enjoy the thought of the evil creator of “My Humps” drowning.

As our band of misfits work their way up to the disco and into an elevator shaft and beyond, they take moments to introduce themselves to each other with poignancy as the rising water rushes them along. They run into masses of dead bodies killed by a flash fire “that burns the lungs like rice paper,” according to former fireman Robert. As the ship contracts around them, they keep getting stuck. Fortunately, they all retain a plentiful supply of working flashlights so that we can see, and director Peterson makes sure that there is plenty of fire for good mood lighting and the occasional heart-wrenching death to remind us what is at stake. Young Christian asks his girlfriend to “just tell me that you love me” before what looks like a certain suicide mission underwater as her conflicted father looks on.

Will they make it before the ballast tanks flood? What will happen to the boy separated from his mother by a metal grate as the water floods his chamber? How many thefts from Titanic can the audience spot? I can’t say, but I confess I preferred the mass death of the beginning to the trite melodrama that came later.

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