Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/16/06 20:36:51

"Drowns the audience in eye candy, then gets washed away."
3 stars (Just Average)

There's no fat on Warner Brothers' new adaptation of "The Poseidon Adventure". It establishes the setting and sketches its characters out quickly before getting to the meat of the picture, the action. The problem with there not being much fat on the picture is what anybody who has gone for the low-cal version of anything knows: You lose the fat, you lose half the flavor.

It takes maybe ten minutes to introduce us to the double handful of people on the ocean liner Poseidon during its New Year's Eve voyage that will turn out to be significant. Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell) is a former mayor of New York, traveling with his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) and her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel); he's uncomfortable with her being all grown up and having girl parts. Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas) is a professional gambler (or so he says!); he hits on Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett) and isn't scared off by her ten-year-old son Conor (Jimmy Bennett). Ramsey and Johns are playing poker with "Lucky Larry" (Kevin Dillon), while on the other side of the ballroom, Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) is getting ready to jump off the side of the ship because his partner stood him up at the dock. Elena Gonzalez (Mia Maestro) has stowed away with galley mate Marco Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez). Shortly after the captain (Andre Braugher) announces that midnight has passed, an enormous rogue tidal wave hits, leaving the ship upside down. Johns decides he's not going to wait for rescue in the ballroom, the others fall in, and the group sets off to climb up to the bottom of the ship.

Pretty much all you learn about the characters, you get before disaster strikes. This isn't a "characters face danger and discover new reservoirs of strength" type of disaster movie; it's the "lethal but cool-looking obstacle course" type. We have a personal stake in these characters' survival because they're the guys who got the extra five seconds of screen time in the opening scenes, whereas the rest of the drowned, burned, and pulverized passengers and crew are just so many extras. You can predict a certain amount of who will survive and who won't just from credit placement and familiarity with how a film manufactured by a studio will run. A familiar name listed after several unknown ones and preceded by "and" is likely not long for the world, and focus groups are going to have very different ideas about the acceptability of a little kid and a grown woman losing a parent.

It's almost irrelevant to complain about that, though, because the filmmakers don't make it a priority; if they'd wanted this to be a character-based story, they'd have taken more from the source material than just the idea of the good ship Poseidon being upside down (at least, I presume that's all that screenwriter Mark Protosevich retained from Paul Gallico's novel; none of the character names, at least, match up with previous versions). This movie is about narrow escapes and grand-scale set pieces, blown up larger than life. If you want more than rudimentary interpersonal drama, go watch TV. We've got sets to flood, fires to set, and tunnels to crawl through.

And credit where credit's due - director Wolfgang Petersen and his crew do a fantastic job flooding sets, setting fires, and pushing the cast through tunnels. Petersen doesn't really do as much as he could with the upside-down-ness of the environment, but the moments when he does are nicely off-kilter, as folks in the audience have brief moments of wondering why that piano is nailed to the ceiling, or tilt their heads to read something on the wall. Everyone gets good and wet, with the water clear enough and the lighting (improbably) good enough to give us the sense of an actual place being flooded, rather than just a tight shot of the corner of a soundstage. There are corpses everywhere to remind the audience of the danger, although several set pieces - I'm specifically thinking of a moment when a gushing spout of oil ignites in the middle of a shaft, giving us a pillar of fire rising from rising waters - provoke a "man, that's cool" reaction rather than one of "man, that's life-threatening danger." The effects and photography are top-notch throughout, but the tone isn't.

Each member of the cast does as well as one would expect them too individually. There's something tremendously unfair about a movie that gives us Andre Braugher as the captain of the ship and doesn't involve him in the main action but does serve up a whole heaping helping of Josh Lucas. Lucas isn't bad, but does kind of yell a little too loud when being intense; he doesn't so much create a character as make one wish the filmmakers had spent the money on the real Matthew McConaughey. Most of the cast is decent enough, not affecting tics or the like to distinguish themselves, and so remain believable but not memorable (an early conversation with Josh Lucas and Jacinda Barrett is almost self-referential in how blandly generic the characters and their interactions are). Dreyfuss and Dillon are one notch more fey and two more smarmy, respectively, than they have to be, but that's okay. The best work is turned in by Kurt Russell and Mia Maestro; Russell has been doing these big adventure movies for so long that turning on just the right amount of charm to sell stupid lines to the audience is second nature, while Maestro has the advantage of not only more backstory to her than any of the other characters, but she gets to be the girl who freaks out in small spaces. It's cheap emotion, but it's real enough for us to buy it.

But that's not the point, though. It looks good, even blown up to IMAX-size. The soundtrack hits all the right notes, and Petersen can get the most out of a moment. Not many of those moments will stick with you afterward, but they're fun enough at the time.

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