34 years ago, The Poseidon Adventure rode the trendy disaster meme of its day to stellar box office and numerous Oscar nominations. Today, Poseidon sits poised to ride the current effects meme to similar financial reward and perhaps some technical nods to boot. What it probably won't see is acclaim for its dialogue, story, or characters, but those laurels largely eluded its predecessor as well.
As with its forerunner, Poseidon opens with an introduction to its namesake, a massive luxury liner, and its passengers, which in this installment include an ex-mayor/firefighter (Kurt Russell), his daughter (Emmy Rossum), her beloved (Mike Vogel), a gambler (Josh Lucas), a jilted lover (Richard Dreyfuss), a stowaway (Mía Maestro), an inevitably hot single mom (Jacinda Barrett), her inevitably adorable tyke (Jimmy Bennett), and a waiter (a completely wasted Freddy Rodríguez). If you think reading a list of these stereotypes is tiresome, watching them establish their personas is more so.
Director Wolfgang Petersen wisely trims these moments, creating something like a version of Titanic that cuts to the chase. A rogue wave the size of Rhode Island that is somehow invisible to radar but not the serendipitous binoculars of an officer capsizes the boat. This sequence alone is nearly worth the price of admission. The PG-13 carnage that ensues is unequaled, even by James Cameron standards. Unfortunately, once this is over, the rest of the movie has to happen.
In the original, Gene Hackman's character tries to convince the other passengers that the only path to safety is to leave the confines of the overturned ballroom and head for the bottom of the ship, which is now far above them. Only a few join him, and the adventure ensues. Here, Josh Lucas' character inadvertently blabs to the tyke that he's bailing, and the tyke essentially rats him out. Even then, those who leave make no attempt to warn the others of their suspicions about staying in the ballroom. A small difference, but enough to create much less sympathy for the people whose survival we're supposed to root for during the next hour and a half.
As a result, the primary entertainment value of the film lies in seeing if and how they surmount the numerous deathtraps the ship throws at them. It's kind of like a tame version of a Saw film. On that level, the film delivers. An elevator shaft offering crushing death from above or spiky impalement below, a glamorous lobby turned fire-drenched hellscape, and a tank that requires its occupants to come as close to drowning as possible in order to escape are only a few of the nasty surprises the route to freedom has in store.
Our guides on this route, while not as cheesy as their antecedents, certainly seem more soulless. And no one manages to step up and fill the shoes of Gene Hackman, who delivered viewers through the most clichéd of situations with conviction in the original. Also missing is the tension between the characters of Hackman and Ernest Borgnine. In spite of some truly cutthroat behavior at times, the characters here get along almost too well. That would be fine if they were, you know, interesting.
In spite of some true moments of real tension and pizzazz, this version of Extreme Love Boat feels distinctly empty at its core. Maybe to an even greater extent than its ancestor. Poseidon will entertain you, but it won't bowl you over.
I can't leave without this tableclth!