Despite a few domestic skirmishes among the passengers, all's well aboard the Poseidon, a truly massive cruise ship chugging across the Atlantic on New Year's Eve. Expensive wines are being uncorked; revelers are shaking their booties on the dance floor; and the captain has just delivered the prophetic words: "Water is a chance to start anew."
Change is not always good, nor is all water. In Poseidon, Wolfgang Petersen's remake of the 1972 disaster classic, The Poseidon Adventure, the opening lines of "Auld Lang Syne" will barely be sung before a whole lot of bad water crashes the party.
Impervious to the festivities, an officer on the bridge grimly tells his colleagues: "Something's off." Dude must be psychic, 'cause, sure enough, out there on the horizon is a really, really huge wave. By the time the crew spots the wall of water bearing down, it's too late to turn the boat around (and frankly, I'm not sure that would have helped ... this is a really, really big wave). The old girl takes a broadside hit, and whoops-a-daisy, turns upside down.
Anyone who's ever gleefully capsized a toy boat in the tub will stand in awe of the next few minutes as the boat ... and everything and everybody in it ... goes oh-so-slowly and spectacularly ass-over-tea kettle. Water crashing everywhere, girders flying, explosions, fires, lifeboats breaking away, passengers careening through the air, dinners upended ... all accompanied by the wail of human calamity and the clanking, groaning cacophony of a ship taking a mortal blow.
Wowee ... I'd have rewound it if I could. Really, this is the high point of the film.
When the ship finally settles, it seems only a couple hundred people ... now milling in confusion around the chandelier in the inverted grand ballroom ... have survived. In an expressionless understatement worthy of Donald Rumsfeld, the captain (Andre Braugher) says, "We're not sure what happened here." Um ... like the whole boat turned upside-down? He goes on to guess, correctly, that "we may have been struck by a rogue wave." Further discussion of how waves go rogue is not forthcoming.
Instead, the usual gang of square-jaws can't just wait around and decide the only hope of rescue is to go up and out through the bottom of the boat. So we head for the exit with an appropriate mix of passengers designed to inspire and infuriate us ... a middle-aged gay man, a waiter, a sleazeball, two young lovers, a former fireman, a professional gambler, a stowaway, and a mother and child. (What, no dog?)
Now, as if in penance for our sick pleasure at the earlier sequence of wholesale (if exquisite) destruction, we must slog through the 90 increasingly water-filled minutes as the intrepid band struggles ... against all odds, natch ... to reach safety. Since the eventual outcome is never in doubt, the film's second half is a bit of a drag in the plot department. All that's left to do is guess in which order our heroes keep their dates with Davy Jones' locker, and by what horrific manner of death.
While the plot of Poseidon is one illogical scenario after another ... with the requisite breaks for talking about feelings or relationships ... the sense of being aboard a sinking ship is top-notch. We should expect nothing less from Petersen, who made the nail-biting submarine thriller Das Boot, as well as another wave-plus-boat-equals-death sea adventure, The Perfect Storm. The sets are fantastic and richly detailed; the sound effects creepy. I'd quibble that there are far too many lights left working in a submerged and utterly compromised vessel, but who wants to watch an action flick in pure darkness?
Not when the aquamarine-eyed hottie Josh Lucas is among the plucky; others in his exit party include alpha-male No. 2 Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum (who also got soaked in 2004's disaster pic The Day After Tomorrow) and a handful of soggy B-listers. I was disappointed that Petersen didn't carry on the tradition of disaster epics and cast some fallen grand actors to entertainingly chew up the scenery (if you remembered nothing else from the original Poseidon Adventure, it was Shelley Winters).
But in between the generic cheese, Peterson delivers what he does best ... a couple of knuckle-biting scenes that will have your nerves wracking away (the old U-boat-meister says "Claustrophobics beware!"). The dangerous situations may be artificially gimmicked and flat-out ridiculous, but that's what keeps the viewers riveted. After all, disaster flicks are meant to be vicarious exercises in peril that ultimately serve to reassure us with their heroic everymen and tidy restoration of order.
These days, however, individual mileage may vary: Poseidon features a lot of death by collapsing structures and dead bodies floating forlornly amidst party debris ... images from recent unresolved news events that have left us fearful and unsettled. Perhaps in the end, we can just split the difference: We'll cheer for the survivors, then wish them well back into our troubled world.