Okay, Hollywood, Judge Dan Mancini gets the point: Never board a cruise ship named Poseidon.
The early 1970s was the heyday of the disaster film, a genre distinguished by its reliance on sprawling casts of A- and B-list actors, high-concept plots, costly special effects, and treacly melodrama. No Hollywood producer is more associated with the genre than Irwin Allen. His flicks The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) are two of the most memorable and financially successful examples of the disaster film. These movies, which pit a large and diverse cast of characters against terror and tragedy, were more about the vicarious thrill of watching average people struggle against all odds to survive than they were about the subtle intricacies of human relationships, the philosophical implications of human mortality, or other such high-falootin' mumbo-jumbo. They were designed to deliver escapist spectacle, not high art. So it didn't feel at all like an act of cinematic sacrilege when it was announced that originality-deficient Hollywood executives were planning to remake The Poseidon Adventure. It's not as if they were remaking Casablanca or Citizen Kane, after all. The Poseidon Adventure was just a pulpy disaster flick, based on Paul Gallico's novel of the same name—the sort of book one tears through during a lazy summer vacation at the beach (I mean, it includes ridiculous melodrama like a scene in which a Catholic priest angrily denounces his faith and then commits suicide—it ain't the sort of book that appears on university syllabi). Besides, Wolfgang Petersen, who'd helmed the top-notch seafaring drama Das Boot as well as the middling The Perfect Storm was tapped to direct, and he is a far better director than Ronald Neames, who'd been tasked by Allen with making the original. What could possibly go wrong? Why, Poseidon might even be better than The Poseidon Adventure.
As it turns out, much could go wrong—and did. Despite some rousing action sequences, Poseidon is a mostly tepid, unsatisfying viewing experience.
In The Poseidon Adventure, after a massive underwater earthquake capsizes the ocean liner SS Poseidon, a middle-aged clergyman played by Gene Hackman (Unforgiven) and a waiter played by Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes) lead a ragtag group of passengers (played by Shelley Winters, Stella Stevens, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, and others) through the bowels of the upside-down ship on a harrowing journey to the propeller room where they hope to escape the vessel and be picked up by rescuers. Petersen's version retains the basic premise of the original movie (and book), but changes nearly all of the details. While a gala New Year's celebration (complete with a musical number by Fergie) takes place in her opulent ballroom, SS Poseidon is broadsided by a 150-foot rogue wave, capsizing her. A ragtag group of passengers is led on a trek through the bowels of the ship by an egocentric professional gambler named Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas, Hulk). The group consists of Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell, The Thing), a man who turned his heroic career as a firefighter into a stint as New York's mayor; Ramsey's daughter (Emmy Rossum, The Day After Tomorrow) and her fiancé (Mike Vogel, Cloverfield); a single mom (Jacinda Barrett, Ladder 49)and her young son Conor (Jimmy Bennett, Star Trek (2009)); a gay architect (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws); and a working-class Latino couple doomed to die violently for the crime of being minority proles in a big-budget Hollywood action picture. Once Dylan wrangles his team, much crawling through hatches, shimmying up various pieces of nautical architecture, scurrying through ventilation shafts, swimming, drowning, panicking, and showing tight-lipped resolve ensues. Some of the characters live happily ever after; others, not so much.
Poseidon's lame plot shouldn't matter, since The Poseidon Adventure's plot was lame and it's still a surprisingly fun piece of brainless entertainment. So, why is Petersen's movie so stubborn in asserting its own mediocrity? Poseidon, it turns out, reveals a fascinating characteristic of 1970s' moviemaking: The New Hollywood movement's gritty sensibilities, which produced movie stars who were unconventional in their conventional looks and earthy charisma (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, or Roy Scheider in Jaws), seeped all the way down into populist filmmaking. Gene Hackman's clergyman in The Poseidon Adventure is no action hero. He's a middle-aged dude with thinning hair, bushy sideburns, and the puffy skin of a man who smokes, drinks, and eats too much red meat. The Poseidon Adventure's female lead (to the extent that it has a female lead) is Shelley Winters. I'll allow you to ponder that for a moment: Shelley Winters. She's was in her early forties at the time (and looked like she was past fifty). I'm nearly certain there wasn't a woman over the age of 35 anywhere on Petersen's boat, let alone among the film's leads. And Dylan Johns is no paunchy holy man. Faced with disaster, he proves capable of climbing sheer surfaces like Spider-Man, rappelling better than Sir Edmund Hillary, and holding his breath longer than Harry Houdini. He is the epitome of a modern action hero in all of its clichéd glory: impossibly physically fit, endlessly resourceful, nearly impervious to pain, and always ready with a pithy witticism. Modern Hollywood isn't interested in regular Joes and Janes like Hackman and Winters. It favors plastic perfectionism. And Poseidon suffers for its characters' lack of ordinariness. The movie's special effects are spectacular and it's melodrama is sufficiently treacly, but it's impossible to give a damn about any of the characters because they are so far removed from the sort of people with whom we rub elbows every day. And when you don't care about the characters, there's no vicarious thrill from sharing their terror and elation. Disaster films of the '70s worked like rollercoaster rides: You felt an anxious tickle in your belly imagining yourself in the peril faced by the movies' characters. Poseidon is so compromised by boilerplate Hollywood artifice that it's easy to hold its story at arm's length.
Warner Bros. serves up Poseidon on Blu-ray in the same 1080p/VC-1 transfer that graced the previously released HD-DVD. The image is quite solid. Detail is crisp, colors are bold, black levels are rich and deep without succumbing to black crush, and there are no problems with heavy-handed digital noise reduction or other artifacts. The HD-DVD's TrueHD audio mix has been replaced with a robust DTS-HD Master Audio track that handles the low-end rumbling ocean and creaking ship with as much aplomb as the high-pitched tinkling of shattering chandeliers. Dialogue is never drowned out by the bombast of the many peril-filled set pieces. Voices sit primarily in the front soundstage, but are mixed with enough mid-range to punch through the effects track.
Supplements are a bit of a dissapointment in that the disc doesn't quite include everything from the HD-DVD. Gone are the In-Movie Experience video commentary, and the movie's theatrical trailer. The three featurettes from the earlier release—Poseidon: A Ship on a Soundstage, Poseidon: Upside Down, and A Shipmate's Diary—are all included. Each piece is fluffy and disposible. A History Channel documentary called Rogue Waves has also been ported over. It runs a half-hour and is an interesting show, especially since it asserts that some of the more seemingly ridiculous elements of the movie are grounded in reality.
Like many modern high-concept blockbusters Poseidon is a good-looking film (and a gorgeous Blu-ray) that doesn't have an ounce of soul. The spectacle is worth a rental, but if you're looking to add an adventure about people traversing the inside of a capsized cruise ship to your home video library, your best bet is to stick with the original The Poseidon Adventure.
Guilty as charged.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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