Expectations can be a killer., even the most modest of ones. Poseidon didn’t promise the world, but it did have potential to be any number of good things: a $170m Kurt Russell film, a bells-and-whistles remake of an enjoyable but far from classic 70s disaster flick, a night out for anyone who couldn’t wait for the boat to start sinking in Titanic.
Wolfgang Petersen’s final chapter in his trouble-at-sea trilogy after Das Boot and The Perfect Storm is none of those things. (Most disappointingly, it’s just a $170m film with Kurt Russell in it, and that’s a big difference). In the cinema, Poseidon made up for this with its big look-at-me spectacle of chaos and destruction.
Yet on disc, even the mighty high definition of Blu-ray, the film’s faults aren’t so easily hidden. Stripped of its biggest asset – the shock and awe of things not just blowing up, but being upside down and blowing up, on a huge screen – and the initial thrill of watching Kurt Russell take centre stage on such grand a stage, Poseidon is exposed as the functional blockbuster it really is.
Things explode still, that’s for sure (that much doesn’t change on the move to disc). But behind the set pieces, the film lacks any real sense of fun. There was always something faintly ridiculous about Gene Hackman’s action-ready man of the cloth in the original The Poseidon Adventure. That film’s trick was to revel in the absurdity of it, embrace the implausibility and leave you thoroughly entertained at the big characters on show: the overly melodramatic Shelley Winters, the gung-ho little kid.
Russell’s ex-mayor/former fire-fighter could be his Bull from Backdraft, had he lived to fight another day (Poseidon even has a ‘if you don’t go, we don’t go’ line that harks back to Backdraft‘s rallying cry). The new Poseidon, however, isn’t interested in heroes. It goes for the ordinary people approach, but sketches them so broadly and lazily that there isn’t an interesting one to be found.
There’s the young couple head over heels in love, her overbearing father, a gay architect, a single mum and child, a self-obsessed gambler, a stowaway. That’s about as deep as we get toward knowing anything about them. Petersen doesn’t want to get bogged down in unnecessary back-story. He skips through the film’s early scenes like a kid flipping through the pages of a book until he gets to the bit with the pictures.
Kevin Dillon is the film’s unexpected masterstroke, his “Lucky” Larry providing the only moments of humour in a film sorely in need of it. “Hey, it’s the other guy,” he says when bumping into Lucas, neatly summing up the film’s split lead. Is it Russell’s ex-Mmayor or Josh Lucas’ gambling man? The film tips towards the latter, even though he’s a pretty unlikeable lead, arrogant and charmless.
Once Larry meets his inevitable end, there’s no other outlet for humour, the film’s mechanical plot (set piece, death, melodrama, set piece, death, melodrama) soon buckling under its own seriousness. It’s a film crying out for a lighter touch, a popcorn film made by a director who doesn’t do popcorn all that well (Petersen’s Air Force One was good whenever Ford was on screen, but didn’t have nearly as much fun as it should have).
And for all the impressive soundstages and acts of God as delivered by CGI, Poseidon lacks any real wow factor in its set pieces. None have the scale of Cameron’s Titanic or even the sense of fun of the original Adventure. The film’s money scene – the overturning of the vessel by a rogue wave – looks particularly underwhelming in the cold light of Blu-ray, a series of people falling grimly to their death. Although it does cut off a Fergie song halfway through, so every cloud, as they say.
Petersen does best when he keeps it small, simple and free of shiny effects. A cramped escape through a ventilation system slowly filling up with water is a highlight, recalling Petersen’s claustrophobic Das Boot. There’s a terrific (if that’s the right word?) death scene in the film’s climactic scenes, heroic but also horribly unglamorous.
It’s easy to see why Peterson took the challenge of remaking a 70s disaster film. His love of people in tight situations, especially underwater, coupled with the endless possibilities of modern filmmaking should have made a nice marriage.
In the end, it’s an unhappy one. Plenty for Peterson to enjoy, you can bet. It’s just a shame he forgot to make it enjoyable for those watching too.
Disappointingly, the extras (three featuretttes and a short TV documentary) are a straight copy of everything from the standard DVD release, and not all that exciting.
Poseidon: A Ship On A Soundstage (running 22 minutes) does the usual talking heads thing with the main players, plus the odd nautical expert. It covers pre-production to filming, revealing the not-entirely-surprising titbit that the film started production without a finished script.
A Shipmate’s Diary is short at 12 minutes, but makes for a nice change from the normal star-packed featurette. Hosted by one of the film’s production assistants, it paints an interesting picture of what it’s like to work on the set of such a huge film. Brief interviews with drivers, extras, and technical crew are accompanied by an insider’s glimpse into how the director and key talent went about marshalling the mayhem of the Poseidon shoot. Plus, if you want to get on Wolfgang Petersen’s good side, make him a nice clam chowder at 11am and he’s all yours.
Poseidon: Upside Down (10 minutes) offers a more in-depth look at the effects and production design. It’s good if you want to make a film about an overturned ocean liner and need a few pointers, mildly interesting if you don’t.
After that, it’s a fairly dull 30 minute History Channel documentary on rogue waves that does its job and name-checks Poseidon every few minutes.
The Film: The Disc:
Poseidon is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.