Monday, September 11, 2006

Poseidon / ** (PG-13)

Robert Ramsey: Kurt Russell
Dylan Johns: Josh Lucas
Jennifer Ramsey: Emmy Rossum
Richard Nelson: Richard Dreyfuss
Maggie James: Jacinda Barrett
Conor James: Jimmy Bennett
Elena: Mia Maestro
Christian: Mike Vogel

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Mike Protosevich, based on the novel by Paul Gallico. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of disaster and peril).

Is Wolfgang Petersen’s latest sea adventure film “Poseidon” some brave action experiment? Is it the movie he intended to make, or is there some 3 hour long “director’s cut” just laying in some vault somewhere waiting for Warner Bros. executives to suck it up and release the entire film to the public? These are the two questions I pondered while watching the first two thirds (approximately 60 minutes) of this brief remake of the disaster movie classic “The Poseidon Adventure”.

Action movies, especially summer blockbusters, are often criticized for the storytelling elements they lack: character development, plotlines, cohesion. It seems as if Hollywood producers have consciously ignored such criticisms. “Poseidon” is the ultimate slap in the face to such critical thinking. The producers of this film seem to have quite purposefully done away with all such time-consuming elements. The primary plot element of this disaster flick takes place before the film’s fifteen minute mark even arrives.

For those unfamiliar with the basic plot of “The Poseidon Adventure”, it is about a luxury cruise ship that capsizes on News Year’s Eve after being hit by a “rogue wave” in the middle of the ocean. The few remaining survivors of this tragic accident must then make their way from the top levels of the ship – now under water – to the bottom level in order the reach the ocean surface for rescue. For all intents and purposes, the makers of this new version seem to think this brief description is really all the audience needs for an entertaining evening.

Now, I don’t know if this trimming down was Petersen’s idea or the studio’s. Petersen has certainly directed some wonderful multi-character sea thrillers, like “The Perfect Storm” and the German film “Das Boot”. His “Das Boot” is so riveting with its character driven depiction of life on a German U-Boat in World War II that it is just as compelling in its original 5 hour long German television version as it is in the three-plus hour director’s cut released in 1997, both better than the two and a half hour theatrical cut originally released in the U.S. in the 80’s. Perhaps Petersen is still feeling the sting of the critical panning and domestic box office failure of his epic “Troy” from a couple years back.

Whatever the reason for the film’s brevity; character development has been reduced to a couple of phrases of dialogue and seconds long scenes of emotional conflict. The three short introductory scenes before the big wave establish that Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell, “Miracle”) is a former mayor of New York City, elected thanks to of his heroic efforts as a fireman. He disapproves of Christian (Mike Vogel, “Rumor Has It…”), who is secretly engaged to his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum, “The Phantom of the Opera”). Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas, “Stealth”) is a loner who “knows about ships.” This is supposedly because he’s an independent contract card shark employed by the ship’s casino to take money away from trouble makers. What? I’m not sure how all that is supposed to work together.

Richard Dreyfuss (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”) acts his heart out with his abbreviated dialogue as a gay man who’s just been left by a longtime lover. Freddie Rodriguez (“Lady in the Water”) is a cook who has stowed away a female companion played by Mia Maestro (TV’s “Alias”). One of these two will most assuredly perish. Kevin Dillon (HBO’s “Entourage”) is a jerk. And there’s a single mother (Jacinda Barrett, “Ladder 49”) and her son (Jimmy Bennett, “Firewall”), who exist for easy heartstring yanking. And, although that may seem like a lot of info to cram into the first ten minute of the film, I’m not joking in saying that these two paragraphs represent the extent of development for each and every one of these players.

It is very hard to care about what happens to these people we don’t really know, but what is even more damaging to the effectiveness to this movie than the lack of character development is the lack of plot development. There is no build up to the catastrophic event. Much effort is made to make the nameless body count realistic and gruesome, but there is no background on what these rouge waves are, how rare they are, or even if there is any historic precedent for them. The wave just comes out of nowhere and does its thing and we barely even know what happened beyond any knowledge we bring into the film ourselves.

However, by the end of the film I found my feelings on the lack of plot and character development had changed slightly. I was almost thankful that I hadn’t wasted the time getting to know these people and their situations. Considering the story’s absurd premise, I suppose it does achieve what it’s attempting. There are some tense action sequences and very well executed death sequences. Yes, you can make a check list within the first few minutes of the film as to who is going to buy it and when. But isn’t that the true purpose of a disaster flick? To watch a collection of character archetypes buy the farm in ways that reflect their cutout personalities? If so, maybe “Poseidon” succeeds as a brash no nonsense action experiment. But it also succeeds in proving that a sinking ship without any audience investment is merely a sinking ship.