1972's The Poseidon Adventure has not only been re-made, but also re-named Poseidon. The story is the same: A passenger cruise ship is turned upside down by a giant wave, and a band of survivors struggle to work their way up through the wreckage and carnage to reach the bottom of the ship (which is, of course, now the top) and hopefully escape certain doom. In this iteration, the film's title is shorter, snappier, simpler. It may be a simple matter of semantics -- and the word 'Adventure' does makes it sound like our characters are on a jovial day-trip instead of a fear-soaked scramble for life -- but you can see the change in the nomenclature as a reflection of the remake itself: brisker, to-the-point, better marketed ... and a lot less fun.
Poseidon is directed by Wolfgang Pedersen, and there's a strong chance that someone looked at how well Pedersen brought The Perfect Storm from the best-seller list to box office glory and theorized that, if you've got a giant wave in your film, there's only one man to hire. Plus, he's become an adept big-budget technician over the years with only a few black marks on his resume -- I found Troy to be thought-provoking and well-made, although I may have been the only one -- and a pretty steady track record of delivering thrills and chills and spills for multiplex audiences. Pedersen certainly doesn't linger long; the film clocks in at a short 100 minutes, and the boat goes over at around the 17-minute mark.That pace keeps Poseidon tense and terse, certainly -- there's not much letup in the action once the world turns upside down -- but viewed close on the heels of Mission: Impossible III, it also demonstrates a disturbing trend in big-budget moviemaking.
The concept seems to be that you cut out the "fat" from the film -- backstory, exposition, character notes, any dialogue that doesn't move the story forward with 100% thrust -- and get to the good stuff. And at first glance, that seems like a great technique, allowing the moviemakers and audiences to take bite after bite of action, spectacle, plot movement. But any barbeque chef worth their apron will tell you that fat equals flavor, and that you'd no more want to bite into a completely-lean piece of dry, cardboard-like meat than you'd hunger to take a forkful of glistening, flaccid, pure fat.
I have seen the original The Poseidon Adventure once -- twice, at most, and not less than 10 years ago. But I can recall Shelly Winters explaining her swimming skill and reflecting wistfully on her long-past youth in the middle of a do-or-die crisis; I can remember Gene Hackman's hipster priest dangling from a white-hot pipe or hatch or some kind of doohickey that had to be moved, raging at God for not helping the survivors out more; I can even remember the name of Ernest Borgnine's cop character, who married the hooker on his beat and took her for a cruise as their honeymoon: Mike Rogo. But if you put a gun to my head and commanded me to name Kurt Russell or Josh Lucas's character from Poseidon or you'd pull the trigger, you'd have some cleaning up to do. The fact is that you can cut so much fat in order to get to the "good stuff" before you lose sight of what the "good stuff" really is.
In this case, blame for that can be laid firmly at the feet of screenwriter Mark Protosevitch -- who also gave us the muddled, meandering The Cell. Poseidon's cast can only be called 'star-studded' if you apply a very generous definition of the word 'star': Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, a few cute-ish new faces (Jacinda Barrett, Mia Maestro) and the seemingly obligatory kid-who-must-be-rescued (Jimmy Bennett). We get a sliver, or less, of background on each character: Lucas is an ex-Navy man and traveling gambler; Russell is an ex-fireman who served as the mayor of New York; Moastro is a stowaway trying to see her sick brother in America; Dreyfuss a gay architect jilted by his longtime companion. I'm not making these 10-words-or-less sketches out of a sense of brevity; I'm pretty much telling you as much about the characters as the script does.
And the other characters are even more two-dimensional: Hi, plucky single mom! How you doing, Mr. Mayor's Daughter? Nice to meet you, friendly Hispanic galley worker -- don't start any Russian novels, 'cause you gonna die. Sure, the effects are better; yes, the average age of the cast is lower than in the '70s original (good God, how could it not be?); and all the stuntwork is more daring and tricky. But those facts don't represent a triumph of art; they reflect advances in moviemaking technology and craft, and you can't be impressed by the fact that Poseidon is better made than the '72 original any more than you'd express amazement that a brand-new Prius gets better mileage and has more horsepower than a Model T Ford.
Poseidon has all of the cliché plot points of a '70s disaster flick, but none of the flair or exuberance of the original. 'Flair' and 'exuberance' can slide into camp and verge on self-parody, but at least they never feel as soulless and by-the-numbers as Poseidon does, ticking like a metronome to the beats of the script -- the film's tempo may be fast and furious, but it's also completely mechanical and hollow. That, in a nutshell, is modern Hollywood: Obsessing for weeks about each fleck of foam and every moonlit reflection on the computer-generated 60-foot wave heading for a simulated cruise ship. But not long after that spectacle and its carnage have played out, you wish the people behind Poseidon had spent as much time, or more, creating individuals, building tension through character and cultivating our sympathy for the people that we're stuck with for the length of the film.