This review contains lots of spoilers.
By the end of Poseidon the eponymous cruise ship lies on the bottom of the ocean, and so, I hope, does the reputation of director Wolfgang Petersen. The man made a fantastic movie (mini-series really) 21 years ago – Das Boot - and has been coasting on it ever since. Looking at Peterson’s resume on IMDB it becomes clear that the last film of his I actually liked was Enemy Mine. His other films since then have been either workman-quality, fairly generic films or completely useless pieces of shit. Poseidon doesn’t just fall into the second category – it pretty much defines it.
Last week I wrote an editorial decrying the state of the action film. I used Mission: Impossible 3 as an example of the kind of action film where the characters and plot are nothing more than empty reasons to move the camera to the next location and set piece. Poseidon one-ups that film by almost completely doing away with characters and by reducing the plot to almost literally “People go from set piece to set piece.”
The filmmakers have been saying for some time that Poseidon is not a remake of the 1970s film or an adaptation of the original novel, and they’re not bullshitting you. The movie has just taken the most basic elements of the concept – a really big boat gets capsized and some people try to escape – and thrown everything else out. That includes any unwieldy elements like humanity, humor, suspense, non-expository dialogue, and Gene Hackman. The film has been savagely edited to the very edge of coherence, where scenes barely finish before the next one starts, all in an effort to up the action quota.
What’s terrible is that Petersen has gathered some fairly likable actors and saddled them with characters that have no personalities. Every single actor in the film is terribly wasted; even the great Kurt Russell ends up sleepwalking through drippy upside down sets, lost amidst the smoke and noise. There are opening scenes that ostensibly set up the characters, but the movie can’t get to its rogue wave fast enough. Which is too bad, because it looks like crap – the effects in the movie all look like scenes from video games. An opening camera pan around the Poseidon is so computer animated I reached for my light gun to take out the birds circling the ship; the scene where the boat is capsized had me trying to mash the X button to skip ahead to the gameplay. How can so much money be spent to make effects that look so terrible and fake?
The good news is that once the boat turns over things go from boring to hilarious. And racist. Our group of heroes decide to escape the boat, leaving behind Andre Braugher to die like a complete fucking punk, hugging Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas (at least this time she has an excuse for wet pants). As the group of heroes try to get out of the boat by climbing up to what used to be the bottom, it becomes clear why Braugher, the Poseidon’s captain, had to go out like that – he’s not white.
Yes, Poseidon manages to knock off every non-white character. This isn’t that tough, as there are just three – Braugher, Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodriguez and Motorcycle Diaries’ Mia Maestro. The last two are Hispanics, which means he’s a waiter and she’s illegally entering the United States. Seriously. And they both die. Although Rodriguez doesn’t just die – he’s overkilled. See, since he’s a waiter he knows his way around the boat, and that’s why the heroes bring him along. However, once he leads them to find Kurt Russell’s daughter (Phantom of the Opera’s Emmy Rossum, spending the whole picture just standing around), he’s expendable. As the group crosses an elevator shaft with jagged blades at the bottom, Rodriguez and Devin-puncher Richard Dreyfuss (playing a gay man who was about to kill himself when the boat was capsized and then that aspect of his character is never mentioned again) do the old “fall and dangle on the ledge” routine, with Rodriguez grasping Dreyfuss’ legs. As they hang a flaming elevator comes loose above them – Dreyfuss must decide to live or die, so he shakes Rodriguez loose in his own answer to the current immigration debate. Rodriguez then falls to his death, is impaled on spikes and then smashed by a flaming elevator.
Wait a second, you’re saying. That’s pretty cool, actually. And it’s the first death? That must mean the rest are totally insane and inventive and the movie is filled with such tough moral choices, right? WRONG. There are three more main character deaths – one is a silly drowning, another is a boring drowning and the third is Kevin Dillon getting taken out by a giant air conditioning unit, which would have been awesome except that the preceeding few minutes might as well have had a Kevin Dillon Death Countdown on screen. Maybe they could have gone all the way and had the event signaled in advance by an actual telegram arriving.
And that’s the biggest problem with Poseidon. The movie doesn’t understand that all we want from it is a series of entertaining deaths of recognizable character actors. Along the way someone decided that not only would they get rid of the “Who dies next?” fun, they would get rid of the fun. Poseidon takes itself so seriously, like it thinks it’s the fucking Norma Rae of capsized boat movies. I kept waiting for the vicious expose of the cruise industry speech. Why is this movie no goddamn fun at all? Well, at least not on purpose – I often found myself howling with laughter at the awful FX and dialogues so wooden termites could have taken up residence in the actors’ mouths.
By the way, the other death is Kurt Russell. He takes on an impossible mission that he knows is suicide so that his daughter’s fiancée, who he didn’t approve of at the beginning of the movie (and who knows how he feels at the end of the film – there’s zero movement in anyone’s arc once the boat flips) won’t go do it. It’s a pretty funny scene as old Kurt swims to go push a button he could not conceivably expect to find and then he drowns on screen like a fish in air. And manages to hit the right button at the last second of his death throes.
Now you don’t have to see this movie.