'Poseidon': Lost At Sea, By Kurt Loder

Director Wolfgang Petersen's latest marine odyssey sinks beneath its own digital waves.

Nobody's going to walk into a big, gaudy remake of a 34-year-old disaster movie with high expectations, of course. But "Poseidon" manages to disappoint anyway. From the low-voltage cast to the dumbbell dialogue, the picture is relentlessly underwhelming, and the wall-to-wall CGI can't save it -- the film feels like it was made (or at least written) by computers.

It opens with a preening CGI sequence in which we see the Poseidon, a luxury liner about the size of Cleveland, gliding through the waters of the North Atlantic, a digital ship in a digital sea. It's New Year's Eve, and inside, the well-heeled passengers are preparing to party (to a band fronted by Fergie, of the Black Eyed Peas -- a brief, puzzling attempt to inject some hip-hop cred). Among the revelers are Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), a professional card sharp who preys on cruise-ship suckers; Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), a divorced dad making the trip with his daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her boyfriend (Mike Vogel); and a young widow, Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett), who's traveling with her predictably cute 9-year-old son, Conor (Jimmy Bennett).

Also milling around is a young woman named Elena Gonzalez (Mia Maestro), a stowaway smuggled aboard by one of the ship's waiters so that she can visit her brother in a New York hospital. (Elena's destination is the only indication we have that the Poseidon is actually on its way to somewhere -- although none of the other characters give any indication of returning from someplace else.) In addition -- yes, the list goes on -- there's another professional gambler, a Vegasoid sleaze called Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon), who swigs liquor from a hip flask he's brought along (on a luxury cruise, on which all the drinks you want can be had for free). And there's a lonely guy named Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), who's so down in the dumps he's thinking about jumping over the side.

In fact, Nelson has meandered out on deck and is climbing the railing when he looks off across the water and sees a 150-foot digital "rogue wave" headed straight for the ship. Up on the bridge, the first officer has spotted it, too, and he yells out, "Starboard engines full astern!" Unfortunately, as anyone who's ever rowed a dinghy across a pond might predict, this heaves the Poseidon into a 90-degree turn that leaves it facing the monster wave side-on, ensuring that, as the wall of water comes crashing down from high above, it will roll the ship completely over. Which, very digitally, it does.

Inside the main ballroom, where the New Year has just been rung in, passengers are hurled off of balconies and blown out of atrium elevators as the enormous room swings upside down, and great balls of fire go howling through the passageways. When the ship settles momentarily, the captain (Andre Braugher) tells the surviving party people that "we're not sure exactly what happened here," but that the ballroom is airtight; and since automatic SOS signals were beamed out as soon as whatever did happen happened, everyone should just chill, and wait to be rescued.

Not everybody is buying this. "I'm an architect," Nelson grumps. "This ship wasn't designed to float upside down." (Only an architect would know such a thing.) Dylan the gambler decides to make a run for it on his own, and Ramsey, who has lost track of his daughter and her boyfriend, invites himself along. Pretty soon Nelson, the widow, the cute kid, the stowaway girl, her waiter friend, and gambler number two, Lucky Larry, have all glommed on as well.

The rest of the movie is best summed up by little Conor, when he screams, "Mom, the water's coming!" It spurts, churns and surges everywhere, non-stop, as the hardy band climbs, crawls and sloshes its way from one firepit or fast-flooding tunnel to another. They also spend considerable time eeling around underwater. (Fortunately, if unbelievably, all of them seem capable of holding their breath for four or five minutes at a time.) These submarine interludes at least force them to stop spouting lines like, "You know, there's nothing fair about who lives and who dies." We keep learning meaningless little personal details about them, though. For example, it is suddenly revealed that Ramsey was once the mayor of New York City. This is an odd piece of information, especially since we earlier heard him announce, "I used to be a fireman." (I'm guessing this is a half-set-up 9/11 reference, but only screenwriter Mark Protosevich knows, or cares.)

"The Poseidon Adventure," the 1972 film upon which this one is vaguely based, is now derided/revered as a camp classic. But at least the cast of that picture gave it a trashy energy. (It had Gene Hackman, for one thing -- and the captain was played by Leslie Nielsen.) The actors here lack any redeeming wack factor; they're flat and funless. Not only that, once the three lead actresses -- all brunettes -- get soggy and bedraggled, they're sometimes indistinguishable from one another.

Director Wolfgang Petersen is a devotee of watery things, and the swelling digital seas he orchestrated in "The Perfect Storm" imparted a somber majesty to the story. But the story was the star, and George Clooney and the rest of the actors worked to serve it, too. Here, the story is insignificant, and the computers and the stunts have taken over. Sitting through this picture is like watching an obstacle course being run underwater, in real time. We're ready to abandon ship long before the characters finally do.

--Kurt Loder

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