As the title suggests, “Poseidon” is a meaner, somewhat leaner version of the popular 1972 disaster epic, “The Poseidon Adventure.” It’s also about half an hour shorter, which in this case means you can forget about character development altogether.
Both movies are based on a Paul Gallico novel about a luxury liner that is turned upside down by a “rogue wave.” Unfortunately, the new script by Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) dispenses with people we can even begin to care about. In their place are the sketchiest of stereotypes, and nothing the actors do can change that.
The characters in the 1972 film were types too, and at times they were beyond corny. Still, Shelley Winters gave perhaps her most beloved performance as a heroic middle-aged lady with a talent for swimming. Gene Hackman nearly upstaged her as a minister who gets to play variations on Noah, Moses and Jesus as he leads the survivors to safety.
No comparable characters turn up in “Poseidon,” which is dominated by a selfish gambler (Josh Lucas), a suicidal gay man (Richard Dreyfuss), an overly protective ex-firefighter (Kurt Russell), his frustrated daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her apparently callow boyfriend (Mike Vogel).
The selfish one will of course find a noble purpose, the would-be suicide will discover a reason for living, and the boyfriend will get a chance to prove his mettle. Is this giving away too much? Not really. When the script doesn’t telegraph where the characters are going, the actors seem only too happy to do so.
Andre Braugher plays the ship’s captain, who is notable mostly for giving bad advice. Freddy Rodriguez (one of the livest wires from “Six Feet Under”) is wasted as a waiter. He seems to be mourning where his career has taken him.
“Poseidon” has so little substance that watching it quickly turns into a morbid kind of game. Which minority member and/or marquee name will expire first? Who will survive Russell and Rossum’s “family therapy” sessions, which are as deadly as any natural catastrophe? For long, vacant stretches, these are the only questions worth contemplating.
The director, Wolfgang Petersen, once made a terrific German submarine movie, “Das Boot,” but his Hollywood films (“Outbreak,” “The Perfect Storm”) have been clumsy and impersonal. “Poseidon” often plays like a “Titanic” wannabe. The sweeping opening shots of the doomed ocean liner look awfully familiar; so do the images of the ship’s vertigo-inducing death agonies.
Perhaps Petersen felt uninspired because NBC beat him to the punch by broadcasting a three-hour TV-movie version of “The Poseidon Adventure” last November. Starring Steve Guttenberg and Rutger Hauer, it didn’t have the special-effects budget that lends some visual distinction to the $160 million “Poseidon,” though it did stick closer to the characters in the first film.
(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)
The second top-grossing film of 1972 (only “The Godfather” sold more tickets that year), the original “Poseidon Adventure” was classier than “Earthquake,” never as self-important at “The Towering Inferno” and always more fun than the other disaster epics of the period. For all its campy moments, it suggested a humanity that is missing from the spin-offs as well as the official remakes.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints