In “Poseidon” — his remake of the seminal 1972 disaster epic “The Poseidon Adventure” — director Wolfgang Petersen invites us to watch a handful of utterly uninteresting people claw their way to freedom through the bowels of a capsized ocean liner.
It's a classic case of brawn over brains, spectacle over substance — thrilling at times but so lacking in human interest that any richer aspiration goes down with the ship.
In the finest ADD tradition of Hollywood storytelling, Petersen (“In the Line of Fire”) and screenwriter Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) waste zero time cutting to the action. Shortly after midnight on New Year's Eve, the luxury party boat Poseidon is struck by a rogue tidal wave, triggering maritime carnage unseen on this scale since James Cameron's “Titanic.”
The three-minute capsizing scene itself is almost worth the price of admission, a harrowing, minutely rendered scrum of flying bodies, crashing light fixtures, superheated firestorms and — in a scene that made me emit a little chuckle of gallows glee — electrified ravers.
Petersen employed a veritable army of special effects mercenaries — including George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic — to make this CGI disaster come to life, and the detail is nothing short of mind-blowing.
From afar, we can see a swimming pool on the topside deck empty itself as the wave hits, expelling its unfortunate occupants into the ocean below. Irwin Allen's original, low-tech “Poseidon” never hit you so hard in the viscera.
On the other hand, scripter Protosevich fails to replace the well-developed characters in Paul Gallico's novel — preserved more or less faithfully in the first “Poseidon” — with those of comparable contour. The hero, one might suppose, is Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas from “Stealth”), a professional gambler whose lone-wolf tendencies are revealed through such eloquent turns of phrase as, “Look, man, I work better on my own.”
Be that as it may, Dylan agrees to join forces with Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), an ex-firefighter and — can you believe it? — the one-time mayor of New York City. Assembling a ragtag group of survivors — including jilted gay architect Richard (Richard Dreyfuss), sexy single mom Maggie (Jacinda Barrett from “The Human Stain”) and her plucky young son Conor (Jimmy Bennett) — Dylan and Robert defy the craven ship captain (Andre Braugher) and leave behind the now-upside-down ballroom for higher ground.
The survivors make their way through air vents, flooded ballast chambers and greasy engine compartments to notional safety. All the physical trappings of the original — and more — are here, but not the atmosphere or implication: American bourgeois sinners, privilege turned to prison, obliged to crawl through an infernal machine in a baptism of faith.
Where's Gene Hackman to verbalize all this stuff? For that matter, where's Shelley Winters and her memorably plump expression of terror as she hangs on for dear life?
On its own merits, “Poseidon” makes for steady if superficial entertainment, and Petersen pushes the PG-13 rating to semi-grisly extremes. Just don't expect it to turn your frown upside down.
Disaster Movie Quiz
Irwin Allen was the king of '70s disaster flicks. Match the disaster with the appropriate Allen-produced movie:
2. “The Towering Inferno”
4. “The Swarm”
5. “Cave In!”
b) Swarms of bees
d) An office tower on fire
e) A cave that caves in
Answers: 1c, 2d, 3a, 4b, 5e
In Josh Lucas, Hollywood has gained a leading man but lost its most dependable preppie-Mephisto character actor. The two sides of Mr. Lucas:
• Coke-snorting anti-Semite in “American Psycho” (2000)
• Trailer-dwelling deadbeat dad in “You Can Count on Me” (2000)
• Gay svengali predator in “The Deep End” (2001)
• Jealous grad school boot-licker in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001)
• Phallus-obsessed speed fiend in “Wonderland” (2003)
• Reese Witherspoon's scruffy high school boyfriend in “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002)
• Winsome adult narrator in “Secondhand Lions” (2003)
• Protective father and caregiver in “Around the Bend” (2004)
• Gallant next-generation fighter pilot in “Stealth” (2005)
• Salt-of-the-earth, J.Lo-romancing sheriff in “An Unfinished Life” (2005)
• Irascible, barrier-breaking basketball coach in “Glory Road” (2006)