Perhaps it was inevitable that Ronald Neame's 1972 disaster-at-sea nail-biter "The Poseidon Adventure" would eventually be remade, with more realistic (and more expensive) special effects. Today's Hollywood filmmakers -- specifically the re-makers -- want to give us all the things we never had as kids: Believable tidal waves, for example, instead of the phony ones we had to make do with in the '70s, back when we didn't know any better.
But is believability necessarily an improvement? As a preteen, I was obsessed with "The Poseidon Adventure," maybe for some of the same reasons young moviegoers would later flock to "Titanic": There's something about cranked-up melodrama at sea (no matter how bad the movie around it is) that feels perfectly keyed to preteen anxiety and loneliness. When just a bad day at school can seem like a major catastrophe, there's something queasily comforting about watching stick-figure human characters band together to overcome a completely out-of-control situation -- in this case, a "rogue wave" that turns a luxury liner upside-down on what is possibly the most depressing night of the year, anyway: New Year's Eve.
I wonder how young audiences will feel about "Poseidon." Director Wolfgang Petersen and writer Mark Protosevich (who updated the story, which was based on Paul Gallico's novel) have preserved the essential formula of the original. A not-so-merry band of misfits struggles to make its way from the bottom of the upturned ship to the top, crawling through skinny airshafts and outrunning the giant swells of water that occasionally, and somewhat randomly, gush through the corridors. This group is much more homogenous than the earlier one: There's no solid Gene Hackman man-of-the-cloth, no salt-of-the-earth Shelley Winters Yiddishe mamma, no hot-pants-clad Carol Lynley faux hippie chick. Instead, we have a former fireman and politician (Kurt Russell), a professional gambler (Josh Lucas), a rich guy with a broken heart (Richard Dreyfuss), a spunky mom and child (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett), a hottie stowaway (Mia Maestro), and a pair of dull, twittering teen lovebirds (Emmy Rossum and Mike Vogel). These characters don't feel so much thrown together as situated, and yet the potential conflicts between them are underplayed, if not ignored altogether.
Even so, "Poseidon" is an acceptably entertaining picture. At just 100 minutes long, it feels tight and trim, and unlike so many contemporary action pictures, it boasts only one ending, instead of three false ones. What's more, it's just as dumb as the original. No one went to "The Poseidon Adventure" for the dialogue, a tradition Petersen and Protosevich solemnly honor: When one character asks rich-girl Rossum why her dad, Russell, looks familiar, she replies brightly, "He was mayor of New York for a while." Every character has at least one of these dorky clunkers, lines so idiotic that they're almost quaint. Today's audiences may be more sophisticated than those of 1972, but the pleasure of laughing, together, at boner dialogue is one we should never be forced to give up.
The only problem with casting real actors in a cartoony disaster movie is that it's in the nature of real actors to try to give real performances. And several of the actors here, including Dreyfuss and the reliably wonderful Russell, manage to pull it off. Russell has the thankless role of the stoic hero; he's also the overprotective dad, who, in the scenes before the not-so-little ship is tossed, is always trying to get the buxom Rossum to do up a few more buttons on her bustier. But Russell is such a relaxed, natural actor that you have no trouble buying the reality immediately around him. When he scopes out a door or corridor and announces authoritatively, "This is the only way out," you nod solemnly in agreement, even though you know the movie's overarching premise is completely loopy.
No character in "Poseidon" is even remotely rounded, but Protosevich does manage to insert a few shorthand lines of dialogue that help humanize some of them. At one point Dreyfuss, settling in to celebrate New Year's Eve, announces to his pals that his lover has left him for good. "He's met someone," Dreyfuss says, a simple declaration that's made without fanfare or, on the part of the filmmakers, self-congratulation. Dreyfuss packs a lot into that single line, without overworking it. He shows us a clear snapshot of a decent man who is temporarily lost, and we immediately feel protective of him.
Naturally, the special effects, and not the characters, are supposed to be the focus of "Poseidon." And they're certainly more elaborate than the effects in the original: When you see that killer wave coming, a rolling, toothless monster, you may have to fight a momentary impulse to run, like the audience unnerved by the Lumiere Brothers' barreling train, in the opposite direction.
Ultimately, though, as realistic-looking as the effects in "Poseidon" are, I'm not sure they're necessarily more believable than the ostensibly clumsier ones in the original. There's a point at which the imagination, which is infinitely adaptable, starts filling in the gaps left by the limits of technology. In either the earlier movie or this one, when I watch a body falling through a giant decorative window (which is now part of the floor, not the ceiling), no amount of computer enhancement is going to impress me: The horror of the scene has to be inherent, whether the visuals are 100 percent believable or not. (And do most of us know, in this case, what a "believable" reality would be? We really know only what we think that reality should look like.)
Your enjoyment of "Poseidon" will depend on how willing you are to inure yourself to the sight of "realistically" charred, bloody bodies piled in heaps and screaming corpses-to-be windmilling through the air. Those images are part of the currency of contemporary disaster movies, and they can be handled admirably or scurrilously by any given director. I'd say Petersen is right in the middle: He doesn't fixate on the carnage in a sadistic way. At the same time, it's possible to stylize this kind of violence and still make the audience feel its emotional impact.
Petersen doesn't have the subtlety to pull that off, which won't come as a surprise to anyone who's seen blunt thunkers like "Troy," or even "The Perfect Storm," a terrible movie that, against my better judgment (believe me), actually made me cry. "Poseidon" is workmanlike and efficient, and there are worse ways to go about making a disaster entertainment. At the same time, there's a part of me that blanches at this kind of bloody fun. So few contemporary directors trust us moviegoers to be able to imagine horror, and so they meticulously fill in its distinguishing characteristics for us, pixel by pixel -- not realizing that doing so only shrinks the scope of their vision instead of expanding it. "Poseidon," which cost some $160 million to make, certainly qualifies as a big movie. But it's the kind of "big" that you forget almost as soon as you've left the theater. Petersen leaves nothing to the imagination -- which is maybe why, in the end, our imaginations are left with nothing.