Just Add Water

Mechanical disaster-movie remake removes old people, inserts expensive fireballs

Our anemic movie industry recycles so relentlessly that even complaints about micro-remilling and plasticized repackaging are themselves recycled product, offered to draw the line between concerned aging cinephiles and the target consumers who don't care a whit. But still, we've become a culture not merely tantalized by but doped on never ending resurrections of our own recent junk. The market dynamic seems to be accelerating, and perhaps there'll be a cyclical point when the diminishing returns will vanish altogether, and the punk-like essence of movies—people, stories, experience, visual insight—may rise up. Or not.

That no one is going to the mat for the old Poseidon Adventure is beside the point; the inaugural disaster film was old-fashioned cheesecake, but it was still the '70s, so the actors (even ostensible hottie Carol Lynley) looked like real people; the catastrophe at hand was entirely a matter of sets, stunts, real fire, and gravity; and the characters weren't hyper-formulated with motivational backstories and toddler-simple hero-villain identities. The new Poseidon—being an utterly empty-skulled genre mechanism and nothing more— begins in digital fourth gear, swooping up, over, and around the animated ship with faux helicopter-ness, catching glimpses of a jogging Josh Lucas, all in one shot! Except we know it's not—it's merely a tired series of CGI sutures and gimcracks. But it's in the brutally obvious intro scenes to the B-list cast where Wolfgang Petersen's movie truly begins to reveal itself. Instead of Gene Hackman's bizarrely Nietzschean priest, we get Lucas as a career gambler with a mercenary sense of survival and lots of helpful navy experience as a cliff diver; Kurt Russell is his counterpoint, an ex–New York mayor ("Cool!" someone says in mid-flight-for-life) and, also luckily, a retired fireman. His daughter (the at times intolerably dewy Emmy Rossum) is stumping for her boyfriend (Mike Vogel) and even shows Daddy the secret engagement ring right before they slide down a firehose over a lake of fire.

Richard Dreyfuss, as a heartbroken gay millionaire who is literally climbing over the rail in a suicidal lurch when the monster wave appears, proves to be mostly an impediment in the trip through the capsized vessel, but no more so than a handful of other lackluster souls. (Fergie, of the Black Eyed Peas, is the ballroom chanteuse not singing "The Morning After.") Old people—the linchpin of every cruise ship passenger list—are now absent; when it comes down to a sacrificial rescue underwater, Russell is Shelley Winters.

Ship of fools
photo: Warner Bros.
Ship of fools

Still, nobody is able to act in any way even James Lipton could praise; Petersen's movie moves perhaps too quickly, so conversations are reduced to Stone Age quips. Kevin Dillon's caricatured asswipe is sub jected to one of the most deplorable deserving-death setups ever concocted, trying to pick a drunken fistfight within minutes of the boat turning over. (How I missed Ernest Borgnine's Rogo the fat cop, reflexively resisting Hackman's messianic leader and evoking every grouchy, work-hardened friend's uncle I'd ever met as a kid.) It is telling, in the blitz of blustery destruction and expense, that the most pungent sequence is set in an air duct, where all of the characters are crammed and the serious claustrophobia of Mexican stowaway Mia Maestro becomes a distinctly nasty crucible.

Poseidon may, like Spielberg's War of the Worlds, go down better outside of the metro area than within. A supposedly fun thing I may never want to do again after 9-11, disaster films are simple death porn, and the easy wow factor of fireballs, massive explosions, flying bodies, and architectural obliteration on a large scale is, or should be, no longer a gimme. Petersen's film doesn't avert its gaze from the corpses and mayhem like the original, relatively speaking, did—as if to, what, chasten us for ever enjoying the genre? Or has 9-11, in Hollywood's eyes, been converted to a kind of combat seasoning, after which we should not only tolerate experiences of bloody catastrophe but thrill to them? Did it take 9-11 to turn us en masse into the wreck-wound junkies of J.G. Ballard's Crash? I missed the inoculation, I guess, and do not look forward to the remake of The Towering Inferno.

 
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