On New Years Eve, luxury liner the Poseidon is up-ended by a giant rogue wave in the mid-Atlantic. On board, a mismatched group of survivors attempt to navigate their way to safety through the treacherous interior of the stricken ship.
Wolfgang Petersen opens his remake/re-imagining/retread of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure — the prototypical disaster movie and still, perhaps, the best-loved example of the genre — with a stunning 360-degree aerial shot of the magnificent ocean liner gliding serenely through a mill-pond ocean as the sunset dapples the horizon with postcard perfection. It’s a wonderful shot for several reasons. First, it gives us a bird’s eye view of the mighty, elegant vessel that we know will, in the next 20 minutes, be flipped on its belly by a gigantic rogue wave, its luxurious opulence transformed into a horrifying, watery grave for the vast majority of its well-heeled passengers. This is classic and highly effective appetite-whetting; the calm before the storm. It is also, although you might not realise it at the time, a foretaste of the superb special effects that lie in store.
According to Petersen, every element of the shot — save the lone figure of Josh Lucas, as professional gambler Dylan Johns, limbering up by jogging round the deck — was created in the computer. This should instil every confidence that the movie’s signature set-piece, the 150-foot killer wave smashing broadside into the Poseidon and rolling it over, will be every bit as awe-inspiring as it needs to be.A combination of CG and live-action shot from inside and outside the ship, above and below the water level, the sequence is marked by shocking violence, as actors and extras are thrown around like rag dolls. Only when it comes to an end do you realise you’ve stopped breathing.
Being an unapologetic disaster flick of the old school, Poseidon does possess all the other salient features that go hand-in-hand with catastrophe, destruction and death. In the necessary but clumsy expository scenes, where we are introduced to the motley crew of survivors-to-be whose fortunes we will follow once it all goes pear-shaped, the meetings are a little too cute for comfort and the dialogue is cheesier than a bathful of nacho dip. But thankfully Petersen keeps these encounters brief, giving us only as much information as is required for us to give a toss whether they live or die. With a core group of ten characters to introduce, this is done with admirable economy. And, as is true throughout the movie, when the hokiness reaches crisis point, you have to hand it to Petersen for embracing the clichés that are so integral to the disaster movie code.
Thus, fighting for survival as they forge their way up and out of the stricken ship, their number depleted at regular intervals as tradition demands, we have the stoic loner (Lucas), the suicidal gay man (Richard Dreyfuss), the beautiful single mother with the tousle-headed kid (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett), the taciturn concerned dad, ex-fireman and ex-mayor of New York (Kurt Russell), the star-crossed young lovers (Emmy Rossum and Mike Vogel), the mysterious stowaway (Mía Maestro) and the cocky young waiter (Freddy Rodríguez). It’s as fine a collection of archetypes as you could wish for. And once the wave hits, there’s little time for stirring speeches or sentimental guff. In this, Petersen shows that he means business by killing off one of the big names — horribly and shockingly in a scene that demonstrates the price of survival — almost immediately. From the moment the protagonists band together, deciding that their odds are better outside the sealed-off ballroom where the other survivors wait in vain for the rescue helicopters, the action never lets up.
Again, this is a genre that calls for drastic suspension of disbelief, but there are certain moments here that are almost unbearably realistic. One such finds the gang wedged into a ventilator shaft — although not your usual movie ventilator shaft, spotlessly clean and wide enough to drive a van through. This is the real thing: cramped, dirty and dark, a heebie-jeebies-inducing death trap. Of course, someone gets stuck, pinning half of the group below as the water rises, and the other up ahead, struggling to unscrew a reluctant grille. As you might expect, it’s one of several similar sequences that play heavily on our most primal fears, but nowhere else is the sense of hysterical panic and pure, frantic terror evoked with such excruciating intensity.
It’s unlikely that Petersen’s film will replace its Ronald Neame-directed predecessor in the public’s affections. But in sticking closely to a tried-and-tested formula, peppering proceedings with world-class special effects, relentless, nerve-shredding action and characters we actually give a damn about, Poseidon is a more than worthy addition to the canon. Towering Inferno next, perhaps?
A shot in the arm for the classic disaster movie: awesome effects, nail-biting tension and a cast of characters we dont want dead after half an hour even, amazingly, the cute kid.