Judge Dennis Prince once held his breath for two and a half minutes, determined to survive an elevator encounter at a chili cook-off.
"There's nothing fair about who lives and dies. You gave us all a chance."
At the time of this writing, the fate of Poseidon has already been determined: a multi-million dollar endeavor that quickly sunk at the box office, and which has been struggling to recoup its financial shortcoming in the DVD market since January 2007. But, as the scripted line preceding indicates, there's also no element of fairness to this situation, either. Poseidon arrived as a film already doomed by an unstoppable affront that summarily left it a twisted mass of action sequences that seemed to have little need for characters and, therefore, displayed even less regard for audiences struggling to apply compassion to the under-explained survivors on the screen.
Even though it might be billed as a "non-stop action thrill-ride that never comes up for air," it lacks so much of what makes a tragic tale relevant, especially in this unique time where real disasters seem to be occurring around the globe and where onlookers cling to the revealing stories of victims and victors that have been met with often insurmountable odds. Similarly, then, Poseidon stood poised with a chance to enrapture audiences with a movie-therapy narrative that could shock by way of its events, and inspire through the strength and self-sacrifice of humans entrenched in absolute peril. Given enough time, the film could weave an irresistible net around viewers and keep them riveted as they hope and pray for the beleaguered souls in harm's way. Clearly, though, the film was rushed in its final delivery, impatient and insensitive to the negative impact a shortened running time would have. It's a fast-paced action ride, there's no doubt; but it failed to recognize that audiences craved a more involving experience from a film of its sort, especially in this day and age.
Now, more than three decades after it first set sail, the Poseidon is again facing imminent peril, from threats previously told as well as those new to this recent excursion.
Facts of the Case
On New Year's Eve, the S.S. Poseidon, a massive state-of-the-art cruise ship, is en route from London to New York. Without warning, an incredible 120-foot rogue wave strikes the ship broadside just as the midnight revelry has begun. The wave crashes with such force that the vessel is crippled and left upside-down in the cold ocean waters. Despite assurances from Captain Bradford (Andre Braugher, A Better Way to Die), a handful of survivors elect to traverse the ship's inverted interior rather that wait within the confines of the Master Ballroom. Loner Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas, Stealth) has indicated he can escape by climbing up to the bottom in order to reach the outside world by way of the bow thruster tubes, unwittingly attracting the attention of young Conor (Jimmy Bennett, Firewall) and his mother Maggie (Jacinda Barrett, Ladder 49). Nearby, former firefighter and New York City mayor Robert Ramsay (Kurt Russell, Backdraft) is desperate to find his daughter, Jennifer (Emmy Rossum, The Phantom of the Opera), who was in the ship's discotheque with her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) when the wave struck. Suicidal architect Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws) realizes the ballroom cannot provide safety and also seeks a way up and out. Ship's waiter Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez, Lady in the Water) knows the layout of the vessel and joins the other four. The small troupe mounts a journey up to the disco to retrieve Jennifer and Christian, plus stowaway Elena (Mia Maestro, Deepwater) and drunken lounge lizard Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon, Entourage), and make their way to the bow thrusters. Their trek will be fraught with perils and unknown dangers in an upside-down world deep within the bowels of the "dying" ocean liner.
There was little surprise in regards to the scope and premise of Poseidon, given its namesake is quite well cited within the disaster genre. Helmed by Hollywood showman Irwin Allen, the original presentation of The Poseidon Adventure delivered mightily on its promise as a star-studded spectacle of triumph and tragedy amid a massive production never before undertaken. Although his narrative was rather contrived, his delivery was nothing short of P.T. Barnum-esque, offering moviegoers of 1972 a startling look into a nightmare world full of heroism and horror. Audiences attended in droves and gave credence to the anointing of Allen as Hollywood's Master of Disaster. A second visit to the shipwrecked realm, then, could only deliver more thrills, considering the impact that modern filmmaking technology could bestow upon the now-classic tale.
Somehow, somewhere, something went wrong…very, very wrong.
When it was announced that a remake had been green-lighted, and that veteran water disaster director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) would helm the proceedings, indications were that Warner Brother's big-budgeted endeavor (ultimately reported to cost $160 million) would pay off in an equally big way. The plan was to return to the old-school methods of erecting tremendous sets, grand in scale and realism, to ensure the actors could react to real circumstances, rather than having to imagine an unwieldy environment within the confines of overly-relied-upon blue and green screen surroundings. To achieve this, and to accommodate an unexplained tight shooting schedule, Petersen and crew commandeered five soundstages on the Warner Brothers studio lot, shooting in two at any given time while construction was in progress in the remaining three. With his desire to shoot in continuity, Petersen put everyone—cast and crew—through the paces to give Poseidon a realism of progression that few studio pictures achieve these days.
Despite the careful planning, the attention to detail, and Petersen's classic filmmaking approach, Poseidon was weighed down by other forces as yet unrevealed. Audiences and critics charged the picture was far too superficial and never invested enough time in its characters to properly engage the viewer. Naturally, blame for what appeared to be mishandling has been leveled at Petersen and Screenwriter Mark Protosevich (The Cell) for their apparent decimation of character content in deference to bombast. Curiously, though, Petersen had instructed his cast of actors differently: "This is about you. It's not about things exploding and big tanks of water; it's about how you handle your situation and how you behave. I want to see your sweat, your fear, everything." By all accounts, Petersen made good on that proactive reprimand, utilizing a constant collection of five cameras rolling during every scene, ensuring all actors—principals and extras—would always be "on;" assuring more than just thumbnail characterizations and also ensuring plenty of footage would be available to inter-cut into the final product.
So what happened?
There couldn't be concern over the actors' performances, since each displays commitment to their characters, albeit through the too-brief glimpses we're offered. Josh Lucas shows the capacity to traverse an arc that takes him from being a self-sufficient loner to a self-sacrificing hero who may have found himself a family to rescue. Kurt Russell plays the overbearing and often overwrought divorced father who seems to have reason for being so hyper-protective of his grown-up daughter. Richard Dreyfuss clearly has a bead on his broken-hearted relationship that has left him despondent yet allows him to redirect his caring to another more desperate and afraid than he. Emmy Rossum has plenty of pluck and alternating panic to motivate her devoted fiancée, portrayed by capable Mike Vogel. The others perform well, too, making us yearn for a bit more time with them before disaster strikes. A special note of acknowledgement must be given to the remarkable 9-year-old, Jimmy Bennett, who delivers a perfect performance as the spunky yet perfectly terrified Conor. Specifically, his performance as he struggles to reach Maggie from behind a wire mesh, submerged, will tear at the hearts of parents.
With the acting being more than suitable from the collection of "famous names" on tap, it's plausible that the sets and the effects were managed so well that someone, somewhere, felt the main characters should be the ship and the relentlessly pursuing water. To that point, both are certainly characters within the fabric of the picture, and the skill with which they're realized here is highly impressive. The CG effects are superior to what has gone before, the striking wave and capsizing ship being a true achievement in computer rendering. Only a couple of brief sequences betray the digital wizardry at hand, those being portions of the pool of flames in the upended lobby and the flooding of the Main Ballroom. The technical trickery combined near-flawlessly with the enormous practical sets made this one of the sweetest pieces of eye candy to come along.
So with dependable performances and reliable visual effects, why has this adventure been rushed along? Again, there are no definitive answers to that question. Interestingly, Poseidon has been awash with unconfirmed rumors that Petersen's vision had been overridden somewhere between the Marketing Board Room and the Editing Room. It's been said that an extra hour's worth of footage existed, but for some reason the film needed to squeeze into a run-time that would wind up being a full 19 minutes shorter than the original. Subsequently, character introductions are cramped into one- and two-minute vignettes in order to get to the "big wave." (For the record, the 120-foot rogue wave crests the Poseidon's upper deck after a mere 17 minutes; that key moment did not occur until the 28 minute mark in the 1972 picture.) In watching the prelude sequences, then, it becomes more noticeable that sharp cuts have taken place within dialog scenes. For example, Maggie and Dylan exchange a couple of introductory lines on the main room's gambling floor, and are then suddenly descending the staircase as Dylan has begun explaining his profession. The sequence where Nelson is explaining the absence of his boyfriend on the voyage includes reactions from his fellow travelers that certainly could have only stemmed from deeper exposition sometime prior. And a simple look at the theatrical trailer reveals several lines of dialog that never appear in the film itself: Maggie flirtatiously offering, "New Year's is never what you expect, is it?" Jennifer, holding her engagement ring, asks, "You think I don't want to wear it?" as Christian counters, "I'm beginning to wonder." Ramsay conjecturing, "I think this is going to be a very interesting night." Captain Bradford consoling, "You are the lucky ones. This is not the last moment of your lives."
During the production, Warner Brothers enlisted a weblog angle similar to the wildly successful KongIsKing.net approach, commissioning a journal approach in which representatives from key web destinations (MovieWeb, CHUD, Ain't It Cool News) were granted one-day access to the sets and some of the cast and crew during their visit. These journals reveal additional information regarding material not yet released for public enjoyment. For example, in regards to the sequence where Dylan says "you might want to take it easy on that" to the still-drinking Lucky Larry, actor Dillon noted to Brad Miska of FreezeDriedMovies.com that his filmed retort was, "You might want to blow me." Probably a line too perilous for a PG-13 rating, and it is as yet unconfirmed whether it actually made it into the camera's magazine, ultimately to be left on the cutting room floor. Equally, when Miska was chatting with Edouard Henriques of KNB Effects about the profuse blood, bodies, and mayhem that was served up for the cameras, it was questioned at the time if Warner Brothers would be releasing an R-rated summer attraction. "The quick answer was 'we don't know yet, but they will try their best to trim the film to a PG-13. Dead bodies are often shot at the beginning of every scene so they can easily trim them out for its theatrical run. We wouldn't be surprised if an alternate cut hits DVD following the release.'"
Beyond the matter of rating wrangling, it's quite possible that some of the material filmed for Poseidon had been excised in deference to the stark similarities with the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster that devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas. During an on-set interview with Moriarty of Ain't It Cool News, Petersen was asked about this parallel and whether audiences would be interested in such a similar experience as therapeutic entertainment. "Oh, of course we were discussing it…and have no idea what might happen, but what can I do? I have to just finish the movie. And maybe there will be more disasters. Or maybe not. I don't know. Some instinct tells me that what you said is right. I think an audience might be really interested in going through this in a theater."
Needless to say, there was plenty of speculation and anticipation that an extended cut of the film would be released. Many had wondered if this HD-DVD issuance would be the harbinger of the Director's Cut version, but, alas, it was not to be. Instead, this high-definition treatment again brought forth the theatrical cut, but with a few improvements that are noteworthy. First, the transfer is quite stunning, encoded in 1080p / VC-1, with a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The uninterrupted pan around the whole of the ship at the film's opening is immaculate. The details are tremendously crisp and the color rendering gives the CG ocean liner a truly dimensional look and feel. From there, the details of the sets, costumes, and actors faces are well managed (but by design, some sequences are deliberately softer than other ultra-textured HD releases). The colors are vibrant and stable throughout the film, buoyed by a pristine source print. There are a couple of rough moments, however, including exacerbated grain in a short segment of the ventilator shaft escape, as well as an oddly grainy flood when the survivors first crawl past the disabled bow thruster propeller. Beyond these moments, the image is excellent.
On the audio side, this HD disc utilizes the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 technology to deliver a crashing blow, sonically. The mix performs beyond expectations, especially during the impressive wave strike. The sound design of the picture is beautifully managed to provide a raucous recreation of the disaster, the wave booming heavily with water spray, flying debris, and human screams completely permeating the soundstage. All subsequent sequences feature a constant supply of well-placed effects to maintain the feel of a quickly disintegrating environment. The dialog never suffers for all of the surrounding activity, and Klaus Badelt's score is properly represented along the way.
As for extras, this HD-DVD version collects all features included in the previous two-disc standard definition release. Therefore, you'll find the featurettes Poseidon: A Ship on a Soundstage, Poseidon: Upside Down, and A Shipmate's Diary. Also on board is the interesting History Channel documentary Rogue Waves, and the previously referenced theatrical trailer. Exclusive to this HD-DVD release is the In-Movie Experience (IME) feature that works like an audio commentary yet utilizes picture-in-picture to provide interview segments and production graphics. Josh Lucas provides an IME-specific introduction and running comments, while numerous segments by Petersen, his crew, and other cast members also appear to offer insight and anecdotes. It's an active presentation that rarely lapses in its delivery of background information, and, therefore, is definitely worth seeing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The intent here is not to appear wholly apologetic for Poseidon, asserting that it only suffers from severe editing as the source of its under-achievements. Certainly, the picture does embody some of the usual artistic license and even laziness that often afflicts screen adventures of its sort. Therefore, just as the original was derided as a collective of "cardboard characters doing plastic things," this updated engagement similarly employs some short cuts in its derived narrative. The ensemble of character "roles" is on display, naturally, and that works to plainly foretell who might live and who might not. Equally, from the opening establishing shot, it's clear that the film will be grand in scale and that the situations will surely overwhelm the flailing characters caught in their grip.
From start to finish, Poseidon teeters on being "routine" in its method, a fact that wasn't helped much by the imposed frantic pacing. It's still very enjoyable for what it is, a high action adventure that generally delivers what audiences expect from such a ride. Unfortunately, the time when we're asked to exit comes much too soon. To that end, there's still hope that an extended cut (125 minutes has been suggested) will be released soon. Given the mixed opinions about the film in its woefully cut state and the public's growing aversion to double- and triple-dip home video releases, the fate of a Poseidon Director's Cut is surely uncertain.
We'll continue to hold our breath, though.
While it does require an extra effort to fill in the blanks behind the characters' motivations, Poseidon still entertains as a relentless escape adventure. The pace imparts a mood of imminent doom, and viewers are challenged to keep up with the hopeful survivors before the ship succumbs to the hungry sea. Enjoy it for what it is, then, and maintain hope that someday we may see the rest of what it should have been.
Mayday! Mayday! Warner Brothers, can you hear us?
This court will declare a mistrial in the proceedings against Poseidon until more substantial evidence can be presented to prove it has not been granted opportunity to present its full case.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• HD DVD Exclusive: In-Movie Experience (IME)
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