The stripped-down title of the disaster epic formerly known as “The Poseidon Adventure” accurately reflects the movie itself — an early-summer vehicle that’s built for speed, with scant time to develop characters before the world turns upside-down. Thanks to its simple construction, Wolfgang Petersen’s large-scale liner moves reasonably well, though anyone with the faintest memory of its 1972 predecessor will wonder where most of the plot went, and the dialogue is so stilted it can honestly be said the less the better. Given that, Warner Bros. should enjoy a few bright mornings after, though prospects of an extended theatrical voyage appear unlikely.
Petersen came to prominence directing another sea-faring tale, “Das Boot,” but beyond the waves the two films are polar opposites — one exploring human nature under claustrophobic conditions, the other basically using its actors as props in a video-game style ascent to survival.
It’s equally telling that when the producers “started from scratch with an all-new screenplay and original, contemporary characters,” as Petersen explains in the production notes, the demography of that hardy band changed considerably. And while Richard Dreyfuss plays a gay architect, which can be seen as a nod to a new century, there’s no room anymore for Shelley Winters’ fat old Mrs. Rosen; instead, the three central females — Jacinda Barrett, Emmy Rossum and Mia Maestro — all look pretty fabulous when wet.
Written by Mark Protosevich, “Poseidon” dispenses with its exposition in the first 20 minutes, and even then, as sparingly as possible. Dylan (Josh Lucas) is a ne’er-do-well gambler, first seen in a high-stakes poker game opposite Robert (Kurt Russell), who is — for no particular reason — the former mayor of New York.
Robert is traveling with his headstrong daughter (Rossum) and her boyfriend (Mike Vogel), a relationship Robert isn’t thrilled about. Dylan, meanwhile, engages in a brief flirtation with a single mom (Barrett) who has brought along her young son, whereas Elena (Maestro) has stowed away, having lacked the passage for a trip to see her ailing brother in New York.
That’s about as much as the audience learns before the wave hits, leaving the special effects, in essence, as the star of the story. And while there are some impressive, harrowing sequences as passengers get picked off by an almost biblical parade of threats, the initial impact of that great “rogue wave” is over in a matter of moments, and some of the imagery is too conspicuously computer generated, diminishing its impact.
As the aspiring Moses attempting to lead his people to the promised land (minus the priestly vestments cloaked on Gene Hackman), Lucas cuts a dashing figure, and the male bonding between him and Russell brings almost the only sparks that fly character-wise.
At least Dreyfuss’ efforts to assist “Alias” co-star Maestro are perfectly chaste in this telling, as opposed to Red Buttons’ dragging a well-soaked Carol Lynley along behind him.
From a practical standpoint, the movie’s truncated running time will doubtless come as a pleasant surprise to some, not only allowing theaters to squeeze in extra showings but sparing teens the ordeal of sitting through mushy emotion before things start blowing up. And despite the liberties taken, this version is preferable to Hallmark’s recent made-for-TV update, which absurdly revised the story so that terrorists triggered a blast that tipped the boat over.
Indeed, after a spate of overly long blockbusters from Petersen, including “Troy,” just the fact that he brings one home in less than 100 minutes represents an interesting twist. Still, even if the goal was to test whether audiences will warm to a disaster yarn that barely bothers to identify its victims, “Poseidon” goes a little overboard.