Poseidon may not be quite the event film many are expecting: running a scant 98 minutes, it features but a couple spectacular sequences of a cruise ship flipping upside down and hundreds of people being swept up in torrents of water. Most of the rest of the film, which is entertaining without ever being quite spectacular, focuses on the valiant escape efforts of a cast of characters hand-picked for synergy and diversity. Seemingly trapped in the lavish ballroom of a behemoth “not designed to stay afloat upside down,” they get the hell out of dodge, crawling through elevator shafts, air vents and ballast tanks to get to the top-which-is-now-the-bottom.
There’s no shortage of heroes. One (Kurt Russell) used to be a fireman and the mayor of New York City — everyone keeps mentioning that he looks familiar. Another (Josh Lucas) is some sort of cruise ship shyster — I’m not sure it’s ever made more explicit than that here — who tries to go off on his own (“I work better alone,” he says), but I wonder if he will shortly be ardently trying to rescue the token little boy they drag along from drowning. A third (Mike Vogel) is engaged to the fireman mayor’s daughter (the very concerned-looking Emmy Rossum) and he says things like “I need you to tell me that you love me.” Beat. “It’s very important.”
So, okay: the characterization is a bit, shall we say, cursory. But it’s simple rather than insulting, and Poseidon manages to wring some genuine emotion out of their crudely drawn interactions. Kurt Russell, in particular, makes evident his extensive experience with this sort of thing, and a big late-film moment marked by his absence becomes powerful as a result. The grand acts of valiance are balanced by smaller, almost understated acts of heroism — I liked how Vogel’s character grabs the boy at a crucial point, reassuring the panicked mother that he was a “swimmer in high school,” when he was of course no such thing.
Again, it’s simple stuff, but it was good to see a film not so wrapped up in the spectacle of hundred million dollar destruction that it loses everything else in the process. It was good, too, to see disaster movie characters who aren’t turgid, boring, or excessively dumb. Even Rossum and Vogel’s syrupy sweetheart relationship works on some very basic level — we understand its nature and sympathize with it, and neither the screenplay nor the actors get in the way.
The action scenes, meanwhile, are pretty rudimentary adventure flick fodder, efficiently executed by professionals. There’s climbing, crawling, and scuttling; there are flash fires, explosions, and of course a lot of rushing water. Much of it is on a small scale, as I mentioned, but I didn’t mind: it’s easy to grow weary of the spectacular, and Poseidon wisely avoids surfeit. With a $140 million budget, I doubt anyone involved is going to be accused of doing it on the cheap.
Poseidon is based on the same source material as the classic 1972 Hackman/Borgnine Poseidon Adventure. It’s interesting to see something so famous be remade as something so comparatively insignificant. But for a couple of expensive shots, Wolfgang Petersen’s film plays like a particularly well-made anonymous made-for-tv disaster adventure. It’s pretty good, but it is what it is.