What's the rush?
That's the thought that crossed my mind as Poseidon, a mere 15 minutes in, began to take on water, lots of water. One minute, I'm sitting there, getting to know the passengers who, like rats, will spend most of the movie trying to escape from a sinking ship. Then, all of a sudden, the First Mate, or maybe it's the Chief Petty Officer, says to someone or other, "Do you feel that? Something's off." Something's off, all right. Director Wolfgang Petersen was given $160 million to rebuild that great slab of cheese, 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, and he's already blowing his wad. Heck, the whole thing's over in 98 minutes. At that point in King Kong, Peter Jackson was still clearing his throat.
Of course, King Kong was a complete bore for the first hour or so. Petersen, who knows his water Ã?' he battened down the hatches in Das Boot, put us through a fishing expedition from hell in The Perfect Storm Ã?' may have wanted to run a tighter ship than Ronald Neame did in the original. With all those Oscar winners aboard, The Poseidon Adventure was something of a beached whale, groaning with disaster-film clichÃ?s. And you can't blame Petersen for wanting to speed things along. But he's in such a hurry to get to the end that you wind up wondering why he took the job. Why not linger over the deaths, since that's presumably why we're there in the first place?
And why not linger over the lives, since lingering over the deaths is otherwise about as much fun as reading the obituary page. Kurt Russell, determined to earn his paycheck, does what he can with Robert Ramsay, a former firefighter and former mayor of New York City (rather gilding the 9/11 lily, wouldn't you say?) whose sole aim in life is protecting his daughter's virginity. And Richard Dreyfuss is quietly effective (you heard me, quietly effective) as a gay man with an extraordinarily large earring who's just been short-timed by his longtime companion. But that's it for characterization, and these are the fleshed-out ones. Where's Shelley Winters' Mama Rosen when you need her?
A finely cured ham, Winters was god-awful in The Poseidon Adventure, picking up an Oscar nomination for her trouble, but you only wish somebody in the current cast had been allowed to take things similarly over the top. Kevin Dillon comes the closest as (irony alert) Lucky Larry, a tuxedo-shirt version of the cad he plays on "Entourage." But Josh Lucas, as a reluctant Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, is a pale imitation of Gene Hackman's Church-of-What's-Happening-Now preacher man, whose liberation theology included using the Lord's name in vain. And you may miss the rivalry that Hackman got going with Ernest Borgnine, another finely cured ham. Compared to them, Russell and Lucas are like childhood sweethearts.
I know, I know: Otherwise, how was the tsunami? I thought it looked cartoonish, a 150-foot-high wall of roiling pixels. The ship itself has some weight, even some grandeur, the lobby's glass-enclosed elevators evoking a Hyatt Regency. And Petersen gives it the hey-look-me-over treatment in an opening heli-cam shot (computerized, of course) that promises more than the movie can deliver. But after flipping the thing over Ã?' wonderful tagline for the 1972 version: "Hell, Upside Down!" Ã?' he doesn't know what to do except scratch people off the passenger list. Some are crushed to death. Some are electrocuted. Some turn a little crispy on the outside, thanks to flash-fires. As a result, there are a lot of dead bodies lying around and floating by...
...and more where those came from. Like the original, the remake turns into a watery labyrinth as a small group of survivors, disobeying the captain's orders, tries to find a way out of this leaky coffin. And if there's a message embedded in who makes it and who doesn't, my advice is: Don't even step on a boat if you're Latino. Also, don't expect an easy time of it just because you're a kid. Poseidon combines two of our favorite phobias: fear of drowning and fear of tight spaces. And Petersen knows how to exploit both of them, often at the same time. What he lacks is James Cameron's feeling for the esthetics of destruction Ã?' the sublime terror that Titanic invoked at its best.
Shipwrecks aren't exactly at the top of our things-to-worry-about list these days. (The Towering Inferno, anyone?) So it isn't clear why Petersen didn't try to have a little more fun. The last time out, Stella Stevens, as a former prostitute, had me choking on my Milk Duds with a quip about suppositories. And the '70s hairstyles alone are enough to guarantee DVD rentals for years to come. But Petersen plays it straight. He's in too big a hurry to stop and tell a joke. And he's going to sink that ship, come hell or high water. But we're not just there to see a ship go down, we're there to see the captain go down with the ship. We want dead people, not dead bodies.