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May 17, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 17, 2006 |

Poseidon lumbers onto the screen at a very odd period for movies. Its 1972 predecessor was a film that helped usher in a brief craze with the so-called “disaster” epics — where groundbreaking budgets gave way to groundbreaking scale effects, mostly of things falling down or generally being destroyed.

These days, it’s part and parcel of making a big event film to have a $140 million budget, as Wolfgang Petersen had for this entirely unnecessary remake and, with modern special effects, seeing a building or two blown up or knocked down is just a part of the theatrical experience. So where does that leave Poseidon besides to reenact itself in a modern setting but with a defunct value of interest?

… exactly.

Petersen has the strange distinction of being known as the “dirigible hack” in Hollywood, having come to fame with 1981’s Das Boot and then making progressively larger and (mostly) crummier thrillers over the next 25 years, including the similarly lackluster seafarer The Perfect Storm. By and large, Petersen shows minimal interest in his characters, having whatever team of hirelings who write his films draft a quick-and-easy stash of characters that he then tosses this way and that with massive sets and visuals.

To call Poseidon’s characterization paper-thin doesn’t quite do it justice. Fly-wing-thin, maybe? Characters are, quite literally, given one or two lines of dialogue in as many scenes to set up their stories before the giant wave hits the ship and everything goes kerflooey. Josh Lucas is the rebel bad-boy (He actually says “I work better alone!”); Kurt Russell the grizzled ex-mayor/firefighter/overprotective father; Richard Dreyfuss is the … gay architect. All right, well, Dreyfuss’ character is a bit out of formula. My point is, these character stories are as stock as they come, serving only pragmatic purposes, and having the wave smite the ship 20 minutes or so in gives us nothing to get attached to and no real sense of suspense when they band together and leap over rivers of flame.

Poseidon’s result is unusual in everything but its current prolificacy: An experience of eye-catchers and improbable explosions that you’ll forget the second the credits start to roll. It’s a strange kind of flash-bang epic that tries to overwhelm and does anything but, yet clocks in at just over an hour-and-a-half, as if in concession to its viewers’ impatience.

In a way, I guess, this is a backhanded compliment to Petersen, who has made a brisk, forgettable thrill-ride that admittedly has the thrills and doesn’t pretend to be anything but forgettable. Yet tipping my hat to this shallow premise doesn’t quite feel honest. These are movies — art mediums whose purposes can evoke strong emotions (or at least thought), and Poseidon does exactly the opposite, being so predictable as to make martyrdom dull and survival insipid. Have our expectations really been lowered to such a degree that we’ll sit through a movie which is so openly futile just because we can? Maybe — but to me, that’s a very depressing way to spend 90 minutes.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

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Film | May 17, 2006 |

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