Poseidon is not exactly a message movie, but it is instructional on at least one point: Under no circumstances should one ever share a boat with Richard Dreyfuss. You step on board and see this guy, don't even waste time asking for your money back. Just run for dry land.
This is the third film in a sort of high-seas trilogy for director Wolfgang Petersen. Each of the three has been in a different genre. Das Boot is a classic war movie. The Perfect Storm is a true-life, man-versus-the-elements thriller. What we have here, on the other hand, is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the bloated Irwin Allen-style disaster film that flourished briefly in the 1970s. At least, I think that's what it is. In some places the characters, dialogue and plot developments are so cheesily ridiculous, they have to be tongue-in-cheek. In others, the director seems to want his audience to take them seriously.
The launching point is pretty much the same as the 1972 original's. In the moments before a cruise ship is flipped by a giant rogue wave, generic players are introduced. Petersen's approach to character development is decidedly minimalist -- which is okay, I suppose. These aren't people about whom anyone would yearn to know a whole lot more.
Where the old film featured a motley lineup of Hollywood warhorses -- Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Gene Hackman, Red Buttons and Roddy McDowall among them -- the new one features a cost-effective cast composed almost entirely of unknowns.
The few familiar faces include Kurt Russell as former New York Mayor Robert Ramsay, Josh Lucas as professional gambler Dylan Johns and Dreyfuss in the role of a wealthy gay man whose partner has left him high and dry on New Year's Eve. Well, not quite dry.
Right on cue, the 150-foot wave turns the ballroom floor into the ballroom ceiling and, thanks to three decades' worth of special-effects advances, the ensuing chaos and devastation come across as even more chaotic and devastating than before. Who knew there were so many things on an ocean liner that could burst into flame or blow up when turned upside down?
The captain assures survivors that they'll be safe until help arrives, that the room will act as an air bubble and keep the massive boat afloat. Lucas and Russell, a one-time Navy man and a fireman, respectively, think that's probably an optimistic assessment, and decide to make their way upward in the hope of jumping ship before it sinks.
For no apparent reason, a random assortment of passengers tags along. Ultimately, the group numbers nine, and includes Russell's daughter and son-in-law, whom Russell just happens to bump into a floor or two above the ball- room. There's also a mother and her young son, a Mexican stowaway, an obnoxious drunk, Dreyfuss and one of the ship's kitchen workers.
As I say, some of the obstacles they encounter, and several of the fates characters meet, border on the howlingly absurd. Russell's son-in-law's leg is practically severed when the vessel overturns, but for the rest of the movie, he doesn't so much as limp. While crossing a churning, burning abyss on a bridge-like hunk of debris, the obnoxious drunk pauses to announce that his nickname is "Lucky Larry" -- not just once but several times. Want to guess what happens next?
Time after time, the group is forced to make its way from one part of the ship to another under water, and you won't believe how long these people can hold their breath. They make David Blaine look like a three-pack-a-day man.
At the same time, Petersen whips up white-knuckle suspense as well as anyone out there. What Poseidon lacks in depth and dialogue it makes up for in edge-of-your-seat moments. The water level rises almost as quickly as Lucas, Russell and the rest can climb toward safety, and the filmmaker strings together a series of breathlessly entertaining sequences in which they race against the clock to stay one step ahead. Sure, it's not great cinema, but it is a good time. This is a big dumb summer movie that doesn't skimp on the big dumb summer fun.