Friday, May 12, 2006
The 1970s gave birth to what became known as the 'disaster film.' Sure there were films like John Ford'sThe Hurricane
in the 1930s andWhen Worlds Collide
in the 1950s that centered around disasters and laid the groundwork for the genre, but it wasn't until the 70s that disaster films became a trend. Films such as Airport (opening the decade in 1970),Earthquake
(closing the decade in 1979) focused on groups of characters facing imminent danger from some approaching disaster (the particular type was usually made clear in the title). Many of these films were produced by Irwin Allen whose name became synonymous with the genre. These disaster films tended to have big budgets and big all-star casts that featured the likes of Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Charleton Heston, and Faye Dunaway. So despite often-cheesy premises, these were major studio releases.
Paul Gallico's book may have had a disaster'the capsizing of a ship by a rogue wave'as the catalyst for his story yet it actually makes unlikely source material for one of these Hollywood disaster flicks. The reason being that it didn't offer a simple enough tale. A disaster film generally had a main character who warned of dangers and was ignored, or who offers the best plan for survival/escape and has to convince non-believers to go along. In the end, though, these heroes were always proven right. In Gallico's book, the main character, a virile preacher, ends up leading a group of passengers on a difficult journey that proves to have been unnecessary. Although some survive, others die along the way and if they had just stayed put like the captain said, rescuers would have saved them from the submerged ballroom. Gallico's book stung with irony at the end and called into question heroic notions of leadership.
Yet in 1972, Irwin Allen turned The Poseidon Adventure into an Oscar-winning disaster film starring Gene Hackman (playing the preacher), Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowell, Stella Stevens and Jack Albertson. But naturally he changed the ending to make Hackman's character a hero. (Then Allen 'extended' the ending by making a sequel called Beyond the Poseidon Adventure where he managed to find yet another pocket of survivors in the still sinking ship.)
For this year's Poseidon (title and running time have been abbreviated), it's not just the ending that's different--it's everything. In fact the only thing that this film has in common with Gallico's book is a capsized ocean liner.
This new streamlined Poseidon has Kurt Russell riffing on his Backdraft role as he plays Robert Ramsey, a former firefighter and former New York mayor. Ramsey is on a luxury cruise with his daughter Jennifer (Emily Rossum) and her boyfriend (Mike Vogel) of whom he doesn't yet approve. Of course we know his firefighting background's going to come in handy. Then there's Dylan (Josh Lucas in his third disastrous outing after Stealth and The Cave ), a high stakes gambler who'can you believe it'knows something about ships. Wow, isn't that lucky. We also have a rich, recently dumped gay man (Richard Dreyfus), a single mom (Jacinda Barrett) and her adorable son (Jimmy Bennett), a Hispanic kitchen worker (Freddy Rodriguez) and the girl (Mia Maestro) he's stowing away in his cabin. Gee, I don't think ANY of those people were in the book. But forgive me I digress. So anyway, Dylan thinks it's dumb to hang out in the ballroom that's now the bottom of the ship. He and his little band of hangers on head to the top'that would be the hull'of the ship to escape through the propeller shaft. Of course they will have to brave fires, rising water, falling objects and blocked passageways.
In this version of Poseidon , there's no time wasted on character or story. It's more like a video game: get from point A to point B as quickly as possible and skip the story mode. If you intend to see the film, be forewarned there are spoilers ahead. First of all, let me point out the racial inequities of this disaster film. Granted, the 1972 film had an all white cast but that was a racial imbalance found in a lot of films. But that also meant that they couldn't kill off the ethnic characters first as they do in this Poseidon . African American actor Andre Braugher may be the highest-ranking character'he plays the captain of the ship'but he's marked for death immediately and then there are no African Americans left. Then there are the two Hispanic characters. Well kitchen help gets sacrificed early on so that a white character can live. But his death doesn't really seem to bother anyone. The unspoken consensus is that he had to die so they could live. Then the stowaway girl dies and people shed a few tears. But heck, she was an illegal passenger. So in the end, the survivors are all pasty white, and that proves to be an unintentionally ironic commentary on America at a moment in time when some people are openly expressing their hostility toward immigrants. I'm not suggesting that this film has any kind of political agenda or was fueled by xenophobia (either of which would require a level of forethought that the film simply doesn't possess). But for a contemporary filmmaker to allow a story to play out like this and be so oblivious to the racial bias just adds problems to an already fatally flawed film.
Aside from these bad race relations, Poseidon simply lacks anything to hold our attention. Although I haven't seen the original in decades, I remember it being fun, tense and at least entertaining. But Petersen should have at least been able to apply his experience making Das Boot , the German WWII submarine film, to this variation on an undersea vessel. But he doesn't even convey the upside down environment with any clever set design. And the special effects look like they could have been done in someone's bathtub. I wasn't expecting Poseidon to be good but I was expecting to be dazzled by the effects. After all it's been some thirty years since the first Poseidon capsized and effects have come a long way. I'd still pay to see Titanic and The Perfect Storm on the big screen just to see the ship sink or the wave wash over the fishing boat. Those effects were spectacular. But Poseidon doesn't even boast good effects.
Poseidon (rated PG-13 for 'intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril') sinks both as a ship and as a film. I only wish it went down faster so I didn't have to waste 100 minutes of my life waiting for this 'adventure' to come to an end.
Companion viewing: The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Airplane!, Das Boot -----