Compassion Play

Washington City Paper | May 15, 2006
Quick, which do you care about more: Shelley Winters or intense action? That’s likely to be the deciding factor in how you respond to Poseidon, Wolfgang Petersen’s redo of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. In the latter, Winters plays a rotund old woman who’s sure she won’t survive the wreckage of the titular ship and thus makes frequent ready-to-die remarks to her devoted husband. You ache for both of them. You pity the never-married, middle-aged man, played meekly by Red Buttons, who’s given up on finding a companion. You admire the God-questioning preacher, a tough-as-nails Gene Hackman, for his gumption in the face of a nonsensical universe. And the obnoxious cop played by Ernest Borgnine? You care for him, too—or you at least want to wax the hell out of those freaky eyebrows.

In Poseidon, you get Josh Lucas and Emmy Rossum and Freddy Rodriguez—the first indication that the disaster movie has changed profoundly over the past 30 years or so. It’s not very long before theirs and other equally terribly acted characters get tossed about like so many Hollywood remakes. That’s Indication No. 2: These days, peril doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with empathy. You thought it was hard relating to a Tinseltown A-lister as she swam for her life and her dress floated sadly up to her neckline? Fine. Relate to this special effect, then. Or this camera angle. Or that carefully staged demise. The story’s about the mechanics of storytelling.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich didn’t update a whole lot from Adventure, which was based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the ship’s passengers are celebrating in their finery, sipping champagne and dancing to the saucy stylings of Gloria (the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie) and her band somewhere in the North Atlantic. Not long after midnight, one of the crew—with cartoonishly giant binoculars and a “No! Nooooo!”—spots trouble: a jaw-dropping “rogue wave” that crashes through the craft’s windows and flips the thing bottom-up. Some of those who survived the immediate impact decide to stay on the floor, which of course is really the ceiling. Another small group decides to struggle toward air and possible rescue: professional gambler and self-appointed leader Dylan (Lucas); former firefighter/New York mayor Robert, his daughter, Jennifer, and Jennifer’s fiancé, Christian (Kurt Russell, Rossum, and Mike Vogel); Maggie and her young son, Conor (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett); kitchen employee Valentin (Rodriguez); recently dumped and suicidal gay man Richard (Richard Dreyfuss); and who-the-hell-knows-who-they-are Elena (Mia Maestro) and Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon).

The skimp on characterization allowed Petersen, king of waterly disasters and claustrophobic tension (The Perfect Storm, Das Boot), to stretch out the mayhem while trimming the original’s 117 minutes to a swift-moving 99. The director lingers on the wave’s initial, fiery wallop, showing victims thrust into the ocean and the gruesome corpses that remain inside the boat. The ship’s slow inversion is portrayed from the outside, too, amping up the dark-water horror and a sense of the ocean’s power. The effects are brutal; coupled with a few cracks toward Robert that allude to Rudy Giuliani, they seem distinctly post-9/11.

For some time, the group’s first conflict-filled attempts to find safety are dull and eye-rolling, thanks not only to the fact that we couldn’t care less about these people but also to Protosevich’s stiff dialogue, including lines such as “That’s a pressure valve. It’ll only open under tremendous pressure!” But then Petersen pulls out his ace in the hole: running his characters ragged in impossibly tight spaces as they dodge their unrelenting, gushing pursuer as well as fireballs worthy of an explosion-happy, on-the-ground action flick. At one point, the entire screen goes orange and red. As the survivors thin, the deaths become even less pretty. Ever really see what happens to a person when he begins to drown?

What was that about empathy? Oh, right. Would you believe that’s where those B-status pretties actually come in handy? To watch them exit the picture virtually anonymous, as little more than props with a survival instinct, is to feel their anguish almost elementally. They remain strangers—to us and to each other—no matter how many times Petersen’s camera gets up close and personal. Does that constitute depth? Not exactly. But for those who can still imagine Winters in her altogether, it’s probably close enough.

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