In his post-German career in America, director Wolfgang Petersen has taken a poke at sci-fi (Enemy Mine), film noir (Shattered), the crime thriller (In the Line of Fire), the disaster film (Outbreak), the jingoistic actioner (Air Force One), the docu-drama (The Perfect Storm), and the ancient world epic (Troy), but each effort has achieved variable levels of success.
Air Force One and Storm were both saddled with dreadful melodrama, whereas Storm and Troy succumbed to long stretches of banal dialogue that failed to stir empathy for characters caught in tragic circumstances. Troy at least looked and sounded, with James Horner's replacement score, like a classic epic, and Petersen knew how to space out the grandeur of mythological combat and stick with more authentic hand-to-hand fighting in place of the usual videogame CGI trickery - a decision that heartily paid off in the final duel between Achilles and Hector.
In Outbreak, Petersen's first foray into disaster terrain, the director went grand and national, and brought in the army when whole towns in America 's heartland were threatened by a microbial invader. Trashy but entertaining, Outbreak was well-paced, and Petersen clearly relished weaving strands of impending doom into a life-or-death kludge wherein a select few fight against time to save themselves and their world from total annihilation.
So why is Poseidon, the director's second disaster film, such an outright stinker?
For starters, Petersen primarily failed to regard Poseidon as a disaster film, and instead fashioned a wobbly action flick: boat flips over, and the race to the water's surface begins. One does get the sense the film ran longer - on paper and in an assembly edit - as most of the pitiful character bits were junked because they failed to transcend the kind of awful melodrama that plagued several of Petersen's prior films. What remained in the final cut were stick figures who leap, crawl, climb, and sometimes die as they move steadily from points A through Z with unfailing stamina, and make brilliant assumptions when they should be traumatized folks trapped in an upside-down boat, headed south.
Either Petersen knew the script was lousy, and, like colleague Peter Hyams in End of Days , quickened the pace through some hefty chopping in the hopes we wouldn't notice the distinct lack of worthwhile characters and internecine conflicts; or Petersen felt the new Poseidon should eschew the leisurely pace inherent to vintage entries, like bio-terror disaster flick The Cassandra Crossing , and have his updated characters be fully aware of the ship's dwindling time, and move to the ship's overturned hull like cash-hungry players in The Amazing Race.
The effect of current in-genres are readily present in Mark Protosevich's screenplay: while still a collection of upper-middle class and elite travelers on a luxury boat - much like the original 1972 film and the 2005 TV movie - the race factor is closer to the archetypes of reality TV (your teammates are sometimes your worst enemies) and elaborate, time-limited, creative obstacle courses like France's Fort Boyard (each room in the labyrinthine Napoleonic fort mandates a tricky crossing through cages, tunnels, and open spaces, and exposes phobias which re-arrange a team's pecking order).
The lack of any memorable characters also reduces the film's stick people to videogame performers who must survive increasingly deadly levels. That approach inadvertently alters a major component of the disaster genre that's barely exploited in Poseidon: cross-cutting between the birth of a specific danger (like fire/water/weak metal/or compressed gas), following its growth to a malevolent force, and milking its inflicted trauma for a nail-biting sequence.
From a flare that ignites soiled paint rags in The Towering Inferno, or strange mounds of tarantulas in Kingdom of the Spiders that breed a malignant force of eight legged freaks, or the dying carrier of a virulent plague who wanders throughout the train in Cassandra Crossing, these burgeoning stressors form tongue-in-cheek tension that yield bloody terror, mayhem, and further strands of an all-encompassing, unstoppable force set to an unknown time limit.
In Poseidon, there's also no initial tour of the ship as a symbol of innovation and foreshadowing Man's arrogance and hubris; these are cardinal and classic themes of the genre, and were ably (albeit annoyingly) exploited in the '05 TV movie and '72 film via an overly curious brat pestering officers or the captain with their know-it-all questions, thereby giving us a tour of a wondrous engineering or architectural achievement ready to be obliterated. In Protosevich's Poseidon screenplay, the boy loses his older sister and becomes a generic son who wanders far, worries mum, and gets lost a few times to create some lame tension.
A number of intriguing variations exist between the three film efforts to adapt Paul Gallico's short novel: the team leader in the '72 version - a bullheaded & rebellious priest - became a Homeland Security official in the '05 TV movie, and he was radically altered in '06 as a selfish, fast-acting gambler (played by Josh Lucas) who previously served in the marines and know the innards of big boats.
That knowledge ensures they're generally going upwards, although a suction jaunt through the ballast tanks is hastily compacted and badly directed, giving what should have been a major thrill sequence the feel of videogame characters passing through and entering another level.
The repercussions of Lucas' acts are far-reaching, but never milked in the film because of bad structural placement: in activating the flooding controls for the ballast tanks, Lucas hastens the ship's sinking, but had the famous dining hall not already been flooded in an earlier sequence, major guilt could have been passed onto the group for essentially causing, if not nearing, the deaths of several hundred innocents below their wrinkly feet.
One of the script's few unique moments has Lucas screaming to wounded gay architect Richard Dreyfuss to kick a lowly crewman off of his leg ("Do it! Do it!") so the others can climb up from the fiery elevator shaft to the safety of another deck. Dreyfuss apologizes, gives the one man who knows the boat the heel-ho, and climbs to safety as the crewman is impaled on a nasty series of jagged spikes at the base of the fiery shaft. Through extended eye contact, Dreyfuss and Lucas acknowledgement their guilt, but the incident dissolves and disappears from the narrative thereafter.
Most disaster flicks play with the us-or-them conflicts and pile on the colours of supreme heroism and outrageous cowardice among characters, but guilt is a rare experience that should have been exploited to deepen the divide among the group in Poseidon.
One could argue Lucas' bullheaded goal to reach the top comes from knowing he helped kill the one guy who could lead them to safety, but the murder of the steward should've opened up the drama and offered a more intriguing series of conflicts, if not adding a twisted element of revenge by having Lucas take the group to a dead end, with dire repercussions.
The crewman's death, to Protosevich's credit, is a total shock. In the '72 version, the role was originally played by Roddy McDowall as a love-struck dweeb who bonds with 'free thinking' singer Nonnie, only to be blanched and boiled in a bubbling, upturned chimney stack. In the '05 TV version, the role morphed into the ship's doctor (played C. Thomas Howell) who falls for the older daughter of a bickering wealthy couple (patterned after the fighting Rogos in the '72 version, who are childless).
In the '05 TV version, director John Putch returned to scenes of bickering and mounting fear of bruised revelers in the damaged ballroom because it also provided added filler material and helped stretch the drama into an unnecessary two-parter. The '72 version had less contrived scenes, but like the '05 version, it depicted the ship's lone surviving officer as an arrogant usurper who gets into nasty shouting matches with the small group planning to ascend upwards; the group's independence is a threat to his authority, and one senses his next step would've been the use of physical restraint, had they not propped up the Christmas tree and climbed to safety.
In the '06 version, the ship's captain (who dies on the bridge when the wave hits in the '72 and '05 versions) shares a more laisser-faire attitude, and orders the protective doors closed after they leave - a rare good idea in the Poseidon script that should've been expanded into some classic disaster drama: the outer hallways eventually flood, trapping stragglers who pound with futility on the steel doors before drowning, while the remaining revelers have effectively sealed themselves in a custom-fit coffin.
Petersen eventually has the water smother the group in a spectacular but too-brief sequence, and he avoids dwelling on the necessary minutia - vignettes of doomed passengers crawling to the doors, clamoring up the walls, etc.- and chooses to focus on the captain (a thoroughly wasted Andre Braugher) and the band's singer (Stacy Ferguson, from the Black Eyed Peas), who embrace as Death comes surging in.
Unlike her counterparts in the '05 and '72 versions who ascend with the group, Ferguson 's role is pretty much reduced to a highlighted extra, although she sings the film's awful ballad, "Won't Let You Fall," over the End Credits. Like prior versions, Poseidon is at least consistent for possessing a lousy song, but the other major blunder on Petersen's part is commissioning a generic Media Ventures score from composer Klaus Badelt.
Petersen's last film, Troy, made pre-release headlines when Gabriel Yared's score was dumped in favour of a more straightforward work from James Horner. Horner's effort proved to be among one of his best in recent years, although Yared's score - written over a long period with consultations from the director - was a richer canvas of material more closely evoking the sounds and instruments of the period.
Badelt's C.V. also includes the submarine film K-19: The Widowmaker, director Kathryn Bigelow's intriguing but overlong & dramatically licensed drama of self-sacrifice, which was draped with a strong but thematically repetitive score - perhaps proof positive for Petersen, director of Das Boot, that the composer could score a film involving people trapped in small confined spaces with the dangers of the ocean surrounding them.
Musically, Petersen's use of score is traditional - even in Das Boot, the director opted for Klaus Doldinger's pop-styled theme and action cues - and functions to reinforce drama and amp-up the tension in an action sequence. Badelt's score pretty much follows the director's style in assuming the audience always needs guidance; such lack of faith in viewer sophistication ensures parts of Poseidon get music when none - or better music - is needed.
The best example is the giant wave that overturns the ship. It's an ideal showcase for sound effects, but unlike John Williams' use of dissonance and warped harmonics in the '72 version, which trusted an audience's sense of conflict, Petersen prefers populist sounds, and he mars the film's only worthwhile sequence by having it scored like an action set-piece, which it isn't ; it's elephantine tragedy with people drowning, getting electrocuted, shredded, and tossed around like china dolls hurled at a steel wall. It's clichéd and overblown, but the sequence is tragic . Forget that element, and you have a cartoon with no emotional resonance, let alone subtext.
Badelt's replacement score for Constantine demonstrated the composer's broader range with orchestral colours and electronics, so what he wrote for Poseidon is assumedly what the director wanted: a monotonous action pulse typical of any stock cue in the Media Ventures music library. It's a clash of idiomatic styles - the aural mix of devastating sound effects and inappropriate music - that's constant because the director lacked judgment in organizing and separating his dramatic filmmaking tools to give the film its own flow of shocks and respites.
The film's lone pause occurs when Dreyfuss holds the body of a fellow traveler after she failed to survive an underwater swim through a cavernous deck. The actors give a timed pause of sorrow, but it's a feeble attempt to craft an emotional arc when the characters have been so consistently bland. Whether it's a subtle nod to the original film or more bathos (something actually quite natural and endemic to the disaster genre), Dreyfuss returns the silver cross necklace to the girl much in the way the swimming medal still worn by Shelley Winters is left on her body when she too failed to survive a swim and repeat her miraculous achievement in breath control record from school.
Like the priest in the '72 version, ex-major and rich man Kurt Russell sacrifices himself for the group; in Poseidon, he also saves the life of his future son-in-law by swimming into the control room to reversing the ship's propellers in a final beat of life before he drowns - a scene Petersen breezes through with surprising impatience when it clearly formed the highpoint in the script's rare shimmer of a character arc.
The problem with disaster films is they're inherently silly; loaded with melodrama, bathos, clichéd archetypes, and the need for a feel-good resolution, they demand a repeat of specific conventions unless the goal is tongue-in-cheek parody - which the Die Hard films managed to cleverly achieve because the humour softened the action-superhero fusion. In a disaster film, the hero already walks a fine line between action figure and charismatic leader, so when Lucas emerges from near-death twice - rescuing the mother and son from a water grave ("I'm back!"), and sending a tank of compressed air and not himself into the whirring propellers to create a safe exit route beyond the ship's hull - he's not a real person anymore.
A disaster narrative needs to balance the threats - physical, emotional, and internecine - of competing groups collectively competing with a time element, or it becomes an action film with cosmeticized disaster overtones. That hybrid can work, but it demands patience and skill from a director confident that an audience is smart enough to think a bit for themselves, and can digest a narrative exceeding 90 minutes.
The original Poseidon Adventure still succeeds because the writer, director, and producer transcended the antiquated archetypes of seminal disaster flicks - in particular, the dated melodrama of The High and the Mighty and the original Hurricane - and created their own conventions. Those subsequently paid off in The Towering Inferno, and while that film and Poseidon Adventure were kind of Grand Hotel spin-offs with a steady bodycount (and admittedly a wee bit overlong), the drama & tension & kitschy bathos still managed to entertain. The directors of those films, guided by genre pioneer & producer Irwin Allen, set up trauma scenes involving characters with established backstories and moments of prior onscreen intimacy and vulnerability - which ultimately paid off in scenes of mortal danger that were constructed with their own natural sense of pace.
Perhaps the best example of lousy pacing in Poseidon occurs in the final reel, where the group reaches the last access corridor to the engine room, and discover the whole section is underwater. Suddenly the ship sinks, and the rear becomes airborne - sending the water downward, and allowing a clear path for a limited time. Lucas rapidly grasps the chance moment of freedom, and marshals the group to get going, while he goes off and searches for the mother and son who've moronically disappeared. (We never learn why the boy wandered off, nor find out how Lucas managed to free him as the water was rising and trapping the rugrat behind a metal grill.)
Each of the film's trauma hurdles is timed to shape the film's target running time: Lucas sees danger, he shouts, they run, someone gets trapped, they hurry, they hit a brick wall, Lucas thinks fast, the group move, they're saved. The trick in a disaster film - and in satires like Die Hard - is to recognize the dramatic value within a sequence, and through creative editing, construct an artificial time period that gives the impression of a natural time flow - even though the sequence as a whole slows down reality, or compresses moments to impart cinematic kineticism. Had these skills been applied when the ship's tail becomes airborne, it would've created a nail-biting sequence.
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In their heyday, disaster films succeeded because they provided stories of ordinary people struggling against lousy odds but triumphing in the end; the genre provided predictable escapism when national and international horrors during the seventies made it seem like the planet was going to hell.
In a post-9/11 world, the old template is admittedly out of step with our current fears of terror emerging from within; in the seventies, the enemy was a freak of Nature (The Poseidon Adventure), Nature striking back because Man did something bad and reckless (aggressive bees bred by man who escape in The Swarm), or bad karma because of gross negligence, arrogance, and greed (The Towering Inferno).
The '05 TV movie tried to update the genre with Nature and international threats coming to a head on a luxury liner, and the filmmakers somewhat succeeded; while not a good retelling of Paul Gallico's immortal tale, it's proof that the disaster genre is still quite relevant, but to succeed on cinema and TV screens, key conventions need to be observed.
The extras in Warner Bros.' two-disc set contain enough interview soundbytes that one can trace where things kind of started to go wrong.
Petersen's decision to avoid a formal remake but keep Gallico's concept of a deadly 'rogue wave' was a fair starting point for the script (it certainly worked in John McTiernan's remake of The Thomas Crown Affair), but problems began when, according to producer Duncan Henderson, sets where being built when the script, derived from an outline, was still unfinished.
Petersen's decision to shoot the film in continuity meant the actors could experience the mounting trauma of their characters, but it also subjugated the dialogue and character bits as perfunctory dramatic bridges between the extant action sequences, giving the screenwriter little room to craft characters with viable arcs.
(A rumored 125 min. recut of the film for a December '06 HD-DVD release might improve the film's pacing, but if almost a half hour of footage had to be lopped out in the first place, it's an indication the script never fully delivered the dramatic skeleton Poseidon needed, and the production was just another example of a concept rushed into production before elements that make people care about characters were polished for public consumption.)
Most of the making-of featurettes are typically flattering, and from a production angle, they reveal how many practical stunts where employed in full-scale upside-down sets with elaborate water effects - as in the huge ballroom, or rooms that could be rotated to 45 degree angles. Digital effects merely enhanced the traumatic sequences, and it's surprisingly how many stunts were real performers being yanked and drenched in place of digital stick figures. When CGI effects dominate a shot or sequence, the results are the film's impressive opening shot of Lucas jogging on the Poseidon's deck, and the incredible wave that knocks the ship over.
There's also a short vanity featurette with Malona Voight, former film school graduate and production assistant on Poseidon, who crafted a slick video diary that amiably introduces us to every major component of the huge production (including the daily soup ritual at 11am, and bruised and dismembered passengers singing 'Row-Row-Row Your Boat').
The last extra of note is a doc on rogue waves - giant, malevolent waves disappear as quickly as they strike - that was made for the History Channel. The doc covers events like the cruise ship Michelangelo that steered into the port of New York with mangled railings and warped metal, or the disappearance of the MS Munchen supertanker and her doomed 29 crewmen, and shows some rare stills of real monster waves attacking a ship, thereby proving the violent phenomena is far more common than believed.
The doc's flaws lie in the heavy use of scenes from Poseidon at the beginning and end; money shots of the CGI wave are overused, and instead of closing with material on modern preventive measures in marine crafts with supporting interviews, we're treated to more montages from the film as passengers, crewmen, and officers are smothered - a shameful ploy that renders the doc into a mere advert.
Overall, Warner Bros.' two-disc special edition offers a fair amount of material, but as a film, Poseidon is a miserable attempt to revisit the disaster genre.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan