“Why we didn’t fly, I’ll never know.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, others. 98 minutes. * 1/2

Other Related Films: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), sequel, starring Sally Field and Michael Caine, a critical and box-office bomb about salvage crews who discover more peril and more survivors after entering the capsized ship minutes after the survivors of the first movie are airlifted out; and, believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone’s flooded-tunnel movie Daylight (1996), which strands its cast in a situation Irwin Allen originally intended, many years earlier, to befall the various unlucky survivors of the first film, while they’re reunited on a train on their way to testify in court about the disaster. (You don’t wanna travel with those people any more than you wanna share a holiday with John McClain.) There was also an off-off Broadway musical, where an actor playing Mrs. Rosen in drag sings about how, in water, she’s a very skinny lady.

*

So there you are, chilling aboard a luxury liner on New Year’s Eve, singing your Auld Lang Synes, when all of a sudden, a whopper of a disaster hits, and the freaking ship turns upside down. Everything that was above you is now below you, everything that is below you is now above you, conversations about what was where now become comically and horrifically convoluted, and the ocean – motivated, perhaps, by an angry God – starts whipping up bigger and faster ways to kill you and the few others who happen to be left. Your only hope is a desperate climb to the hull, where there might, repeat might, be a way out. But the ship is not cooperating. The ship wants you dead.

This was the premise of The Poseidon Adventure, a bestselling novel by Paul Gallico that has some elements in common with,  but is otherwise very different from, any of the movies derived from its initial premise. It introduces characters like the tough cop Mike Rogo, his sexy but troubled wife Linda, the crusading preacher Reverend Scott, the crowd-pleasing old Jewish lady Belle Rosen, and the Shelby family, whose daughter Susan is here raped by a young crew member driven to temporary insanity by the trauma of the disaster. (She forgives his trespass immediately, tries to stop his subsequent self-loathing suicide, and upon surviving, hopes to keep his child; seriously, yuck.)  In this original version the ship capsizes due to a massive displacement of water caused by an undersea earthquake, and sinks much more slowly, allowing a much larger complement of survivors. It certainly has its degree of religious allegory, complete with a Christmas tree reconfigured as ladder to salvation, an angry Reverend so intent on his activist version of Christianity that he self-righteously knocks the tree over again, after all the people who helped raise it have already climbed, to prevent it from being used by those who hadn’t helped. (Nice guy.)  It, too, builds to a climax in an engine room that has become a vision of Hell, and subsequently to Reverend Scott’s death after angrily denouncing God.

The biggest surprise for the remaining survivors of Reverend Scott’s band is that after they emerge from the hull in tattered clothing, reeking of grease and oil and mourning their various dead, they see a much larger group (the ballroom passengers?) being rescued from the other end of the ship, where it seems not listening to Reverend Scott afforded them a much less troublesome disaster. But there are others. Among other things, Scott turns out to have had a secret sweetheart, who had looked forward to marrying him.

Clergy. Whattaya  gonna do.

This plot, somewhat altered for disaster-movie formula and dramatic license, became the 1972 film, which was such a monster hit it made twice as money as the year’s next biggest contender, Deliverance. Still one of the best films of its type, it was remade thirty years later, not once but twice in rapid succession,  less than a year apart, once as a two-part TV-movie, and once as a special effects extravaganza, both times (spoiler alert), poorly. None of them are high art. All three have capsizing sequences of equivalent effectiveness, within their respective resources and levels of technology. All three have cheesy characterizations and that gremlin of survival-under-impossible-odds stories, the sometimes too-easy-to-predict next person to die. All three present us with a pop song, sung by a contemporary chanteuse, just before the ship turns over on New Year’s Eve. All three have good actors who do everything they can with the material along with others who do everything in their ability to try to sink it.

You will certainly find any number of people willing to present even the original as, at best, a guilty pleasure, and at worst as an icon of monumental awfulness. But the truth is, it tells its story and largely tells it well. It is instructive to examine exactly why the remakes fail to rise to its standard.

The first movie: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Few films illustrate the general decline in the quality of popular filmmaking since 1972 more than the quality of the original Poseidon Adventure, in large part because it was never intended to be great. Granted, it’s got broadly-drawn characters, scenes staged for the highest possible level of melodrama, a couple of impressive non-performances mixed in with the genuinely good ones, and dialogue that occasionally lowers itself to the level of the ludicrous.  But precisely because it was never intended as a great film, but rather as an entertaining potboiler, its strengths stand out in sharp relief opposed to the deficiencies of so many high-concept blockbusters released today. To wit: it takes time to introduce its players, making sure we have reason to care about what happens to them; it pauses regularly during the action, to make the drama about more than outrunning explosions and great walls of water while shouting simplistic catch-phrases; it stages its action scenes with enough clarity to ensure that we know where the people stand in relation to the dangers facing them, and how their actions affect how they survive (or don’t); it has enough respect for issues of life and death to make sure that its people are touched by the tragedies they overcome, and are still affected by them at the end; and it bothers, really bothers, to try to be about something, even if that subtext is calibrated to such a level that many, if not all, of its viewers will fail to consciously register it.

Contrast this to a modern-day blockbuster of similar disposability, where all too often something must be exploding on screen at every available moment, and action scenes are all too often spastically-edited sequences with shots of one second or less where even frequent recourse to a DVD remote’s pause button may not be enough to clarify what’s happening to anybody.  And the level of its achievement, compared to the general decay of the art, becomes frighteningly clear.

We’re not old fogies saying that they haven’t made a good movie in forty years. They have. But most throwaway popcorn movies have certainly gotten worse since the S.S. Poseidon first turned upside down, and there are few better ways to illustrate that than with the various things this throwaway popcorn film bothers to get right.

Take, for instance, the character of Mike Rogo, the tough cop and general antagonist played by Ernest Borgnine in this film. He is very much a “type;” loud, blustering, often wrong, always negative. His courtship of his much-beloved and difficult wife Linda (Stella Stevens), changed from the novel’s Broadway performer to an ex-prostitute who he says he kept arresting until she finally agreed to marry him, is revealed in a few lines of clumsily-delivered exposition, of the sort that has two characters with a shared past discuss facts that are known to both of them just so the audience can keep up. It is not great dialogue. But by the time it’s over, we know the kind of guy he is and we know that he’s not just the story’s designated asshole. Sure, he’s got his rough edges, and he’s uncouth in the way that only a character played by Borgnine (let alone Borgnine lit from below), can be uncouth, but he’s also an emotionally vulnerable guy, a genuinely well-meaning man, and the loving husband to a woman who rides him mercilessly because (we have no problem seeing) that’s the only way she knows how to express love. How much more satisfying is this, than a one-note shithead of the sort we will come to meet in Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon?

Now examine the dramatic pacing. In this film, the rogue wave that capsizes the Poseidon arrives at the best possible time, dramatically: a little less than half an hour in. By then, we have spent a few minutes with each of the important players and have a functional picture of who they are. We know that Reverend Scott (Hackman) is in trouble with the Church for preaching about a God who generally doesn’t get involved with human affairs and who wants us all to solve our own problems. We know about the raucous state of the marriage Rogo, and about Linda Rogo’s self-consciousness over her criminal past. We know that the Rosens are a nice couple headed for Israel to see their young grandson for the first time, and that Mrs. Rosen is a genuinely compassionate woman. We know that the Shelby kids, here traveling on their own for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, bicker in the manner of any infuriating kid and long-suffering older sister. We know that James Martin (Red Buttons) is an affable lonely guy. These are not deep characterizations – and much rests on the shoulders of those performers gifted enough to invest these characters with their own vivid personalities, as opposed to a few like Carol Lynley who are definitely not. But it’s an adequate amount of time.

We also know, in that half hour, that the Poseidon is dangerously top-heavy, thanks to a tyrant from the cruise line’s front office, a stand-in for the Titanic’s real life J. Bruce Ismay, who refuses to let the put-upon Captain (Leslie Neilsen) take on additional ballast.

As audience members, we already know that the ship’s gonna be turning over sooner or later, and may resent the time spent on what we consider soap-operatics. But all of this is very necessary, so the characters on screen take on the appearance of people instead of actors getting out of the way as soon as possible so the stunt men and special effects wranglers can take over.

Then, once the ship turns upside down a few minutes after the coming of the New Year, and the dazed partygoers in the ballroom start to dig out from under the wreckage, the movie takes even more time,  almost half an hour, before the major players complete the process of figuring out what has happened to them, processing the tragedy, discussing what to do, figuring out that climbing to the engine room just might be a good idea, and finally climbing the Christmas tree to begin their fight for life.

Think of that. By this point the movie is almost half over. But nobody’s been running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everybody has acted, if not exactly like people act, then at least close enough to how people act to wring recognizable drama out of the proceedings.

And even in the hour that remains, an hour marked by rising water, cliffhangers, explosions, death scenes, conflict between Scott and Rogo, and – as we’re about to see – more religious allegory than you can shake a stick at, the action frequently pauses long enough to allow everybody to interact, to contemplate everything that’s happening to them, to show their personalities and to agonize over whether what they’re doing is the right thing.

It’s flawless pacing, really. Seen for the first time or for the tenth, enjoyed on its own level or as an icon fit for mockery, it has almost no dead spots; everything is there for a reason. Even the water stops rising at the engine room, to accommodate the much-more-important impersonal dramatics at the end.

And then there’s the other element, the one that lifts this film above its follow-up The Towering Inferno and the  increasingly gamey disaster films of the 1970s: a religious subtext that energizes everything in it even for those viewers who choose not to notice it.

Reverend Scott Dies For Our Sins

Stirling Silliphant, who co-wrote the screenplay (and who also worked on The Towering Inferno, to larger but much lesser effect), was no slouch; he had written a genuinely great film, In The Heat Of the Night. He saw the levels of religious symbolism already at play in Gallico’s novel and reconfigured them, to very deliberate effect.

So what we get here is a Reverend Scott who lays out the general thesis with a multidenominational sermon on the ship’s deck: “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way. “

After the disaster – itself a literal act of God — we have the debate over the best route to survival couched in terms of doubt versus belief. The complacent purser thinks help must be coming. The Reverend, prompted by lonely bachelor James Martin, passionately argues that everybody needs to climb out – specifically, toward a spot near the propeller shaft where the hull is only one inch thick, as opposed to two inches. Pinning all their hopes on this slender chance of survival is, for Scott’s followers, an exercise in faith that some other force will provide deliverance once they travel most of the way. 

The first step, which could not possibly be more symbolic: climbing the Christmas tree.

The various adventures along the way include constant arguing between the doubting Rogo and the crusading Reverend, and at one point an encounter with other passengers who are “headed the wrong way.”

Mrs. Rosen dies saving the Reverend’s life, but without getting to the promised land –  not just the engine room, but her intended destination, Israel – herself. Her last bequest, which she begs Scott to bring to her grandson, is her Chai necklace.

The engine room is, as in Gallico, a vision of Hell, complete with leaping flames.

Linda Rogo, the reformed sinner, falls at the last minute to her death in the fires.

Mike Rogo, who has been the voice of doubt all along, cries out in rage at the religious figure who had briefly infected him with faith.  “You! Preacher! Murderer! I started to believe in your promises, that we had a chance. What chance?”

A sudden explosion sends a jet of scalding steam against the wheel valve that is the last barrier between the survivors and the engine room.  Outraged, the Reverend confronts God directly, leaping to the wheel and turning it by hand in an act of personal sacrifice that, given the temperature of the steam involved, must mean burning the shit out of his hands. 

He shouts: “What more do you want of us? We’ve come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don’t fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood?  How many more lives? Belle wasn’t enough. Acres wasn’t. Now this girl! You want another life? Then take me!”

Tell me that this scene, shown below, is not a crucifixion.

He offers his life as a sacrifice while dangling from something with wounded hands. And, just in case you fail to get the point, the red wheel that closes the steam valve is also hanging there, right above his head, like a cartoon halo. Sound at all familiar?

Rogo, backlit by flames, is lost in his own personal hell until James Martin challenges him to “do something constructive for once.” He turns his back on the fire and rejoins the others in their fight for life.

It is then, and only then, that everybody gets to the room with the propeller shaft, where they are heard by a helicopter crew that has landed on the hull, and who cut through the steel, admitting the light from above. (And finally, the helicopter takes them to safety, which amounts to ascending into the heavens.)

None of this is at all subtle. It is, once pointed  out to someone who has failed to consciously notice it, almost painfully obvious. But it is there. It is perceived on a subconscious level if not necessarily a conscious one by the audience who came to see Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine interact with rising water and explosions. It gives weight to everything here, and gives the story a psychological impact that most disaster films miss utterly.

(Incidentally, if you want to see great acting that you’ve likely never noticed, go back to the moment where Rogo curses the good Reverend, and FORCE yourself to look away from Ernest Borgnine long enough to check out Jack Albertson (“Manny Rosen”) who’s standing right behind him. Remember that, only about ten minutes earlier in the film, Mr. Rosen had lost his own wife; that they haven’t traveled far from the spot where her body fell; and that he can likely see her from where he’s standing. Now it’s just happened to another guy, in front of his eyes…and Albertson brilliantly acts Manny Rosen, desperately wishing there were something adequate to say. Because what Borgnine is doing is so compelling, NOBODY who sees the movie is looking at Jack Albertson at that moment. His performance hearkens back to the time where movies were not just a series of extreme close-ups, unconnected to anything any other actor is doing…but performers reacting to one another even when they were not themselves the center of attention.)

The TV-Movie: The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Three decades later, the vagaries of rights and permissions resulted in not one but two separate and competing remakes coming out only a year apart.

Both fail miserably, but for different reasons, indeed diametrically opposed reasons.

The first remake, a two-part TV movie, suffered all the sins often endemic to creatures of that kind, among them woefully pedestrian direction, of the sort that will never stage anything in an interesting way if the obvious way is available first.

The dialogue is also substantially weaker, and the performers, who include types like C. Thomas Howell as the ship’s doctor and Peter Weller as Captain Paul Gallico (ha, ha, ha), are not up to fleshing out a pale teleplay with the mere force of their personalities.

The pacing is also a problem. The two-part network TV format requires that the film take a pause for commercial interruption every twelve minutes or so, all in service of a story that must delay the actual disaster until as late in Part One as possible, to make sure that there’s plenty of stuff worth tuning in for during Part Two. So the flipping of the ship doesn’t take place until about the fifty-minute mark, and the decision to try to climb out doesn’t take place until about twenty minutes later.

It is, we suppose, more than possible for the show to have filled that long wait with stuff an audience would have wanted to watch (see James Cameron’s Titanic, for a film many hated that nevertheless pulled off the trick at even greater length), but that’s not exactly what’s happening when the chief interpersonal story we have to sit through on the way involves the marital problems of Richard Clarke, a philandering novelist played by Steve Guttenberg. (If you have to lead with Guttenberg, you’ve already lost.)

The rest of the lead-up to the disaster comes from a fundamental misunderstanding by the filmmakers, who had read somewhere that tsunamis are only a couple of inches high out at sea and therefore jumped to the conclusion that the setup of the 1972 version was literally impossible. (They were wrong, in that what capsized the original Poseidon was not a tsunami, which indeed would have been impossible that far out, but a rogue wave…which can easily achieve the heights posited by the first film.)

What results from their flailing-about for another mechanism of capsizing the ship is a series of jaw-dropping, self-destructive story decisions.

They resorted to a terrorism subplot, which of course leads to many scenes of swarthy third-world types in the Poseidon kitchen exchanging meaningful looks as they plan to set their charges.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if the disaster was a terrorist plot.

The film’s Mike Rogo (Adam Baldwin) becomes a Sea Marshall working undercover to guard against such a plot. There are intimations of a troubled marriage, but his wife is back home and he is all business, just another steely-eyed, grimly determined hero of no particular distinction.  In place of Reverend Scott we get Rutger Hauer as Bishop August Schmidt, an affable and easy-going man of God who, when the disaster happens and the desperate climb to survival begins, is just another guy working alongside Rogo who is never really at odds with Rogo at any time.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if Rogo and their replacement for Reverend Scott were substantially duller people, who never argued. 

Even as the survivors strive to climb up through the decks, the focus shifts to land-based authorities striving to figure out what’s happened to the Poseidon, to locate it via satellite camera, to dispatch a nearby fishing trawler to its location, and to get a team of Navy SEALS to the site of the wreck in order to rescue people.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if we weren’t trapped alongside the people in a claustrophobic sinking ship, and were regularly reminded that the authorities were bending heaven and earth to send help.

There are uncounted other dumbnesses. This version’s Acre, a replacement for the doomed steward Roddy McDowall played in 1972, has time to indulge Richard Clarke’s aspiring-filmmaker son, a kid who’s attached to his camcorder and is here not only permitted to film his cheesy vampire film in restricted areas of the ship, but who is able to enlist Acre and other busy crewmembers as cast members. Somebody is able to send an e-mail to authorities from the capsized ship’s internet lounge, even though the broadcast towers are now underwater. Wonky shipboard geography leads to badly flooded areas of the ship several decks above areas that still remain dry…not just as the oddity that permits the last act of the original, but as an inexplicable regular thing. Suspense is torpedoed by the crowd in the ballroom not meeting their fates until very late in Part Two, and by a second group of characters leaving that room much after the first and still managing to catch up, thus underlining this movie’s criminal lack of urgency. (The ballroom doesn’t go under until the last few minutes. More bleeding urgency.)

Many of the original film’s set pieces are duplicated here, to much lesser effect because everything around them is so lame. We get the swim through the underwater corridor, the brave sacrifice of Mrs. Rosen, and Acre’s death in the shaft, which are here all unforgivably dull. And the death of Clarke’s mistress in the engine room, under circumstances that echo the prior film’s death of Linda Rogo, here acquires an ugly subtext as Mrs. Clarke seems downright satisfied by it.  (The implication is supposed to be that the marriage is saved, but seriously, if I were a philandering husband and saw that look on my estranged wife’s face immediately after my mistress’s horrific death…I would change my name and move to another state. That bitch is cold, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the same bed with her again without endless sweaty worrying about where I put the garden shears.)

The biggest problem, though, is that the makers of this miniseries completely misunderstood why characters with personal problems are included in this kind of story in the first place.

Here is an elementary lesson.  Stories illuminate character; character is put in sharp relief by stories. Even in action scenarios, you must have that or you don’t have a story.

In the original Poseidon Adventure, all that stuff with upside-down staircases and flooding compartments was there, in dramatic terms, to illustrate a movie-length argument between Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine. It is why the water seems to stop rising after Mrs. Rosen’s fateful underwater swim – because the argument is about to come to a head with the death of Mrs. Rogo, and more scenes of incoming water would only muddy the issue. That movie wanted a dramatic climax, not an action one…and in large part that’s what remains so memorable about it today. Please understand that we’re not saying it qualified as great drama, by any stretch of the imagination – but it was a story, dammit. It fulfilled the basic requirements of a story.

By contrast, this movie presents us with, naming one character at random, the reality-television producer played by Bryan Brown, who is so determined to have the little kid capture everything on his camcorder, for a possible future documentary. It presents us with that character and then does nothing of note with him. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. The same thing with the Bishop. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And Rogo. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And so on.

The only real dramatic arc is the one involving the marital woes of schmucky Steve Guttenberg…and, frankly, we know nothing more about his character at the end than we knew at the beginning.  Except that, you know, he had better spend the rest of his life hiding the Krazy-Glue.

There is one good moment, which deserves mention largely because it is the only good moment: a line or two spoken by Belle Rosen to the terrorist personally responsible for bombing the ship. Rogo goes to incredible lengths dragging this one-dimensional, sneering piece of shit up through the various levels of the ship, with an eye to making sure he lives to be interrogated about his backers. In the only words she ever speaks to the man, Mrs. Rosen says, I paraphrase, that her late husband had always told her that there were no evil people, only people in terrible pain. What, she earnestly asks him, hurt you so badly that you would want to do such a thing? He doesn’t answer; just stares back at her with hatred in his eyes. 

It would be nice if he took the bait,  even if his answer turned out to be a load of crap, because her question is the first time anybody in this entire movie comes close to having an interesting conversation. (See, for instance, the self-justifications of Gary Oldman’s evil terrorist in Air Force One. That’s what stopped him from being a one-dimensional villain, and made him a recognizable character, even if he was still so hateful that we cheered when he got thrown off the plane.)

 

The Attention-Deficit Summer Movie: Poseidon (2006)

There’s very little that needs to be said about the final version, except that if the middle one failed in large part because it was ponderously slow, this one failed because it never wanted to slow down.

It should have been much better. Wolfgang Petersen, who directed, is an accomplished maker of intelligent action films whose Hollywood work includes In The Line Of Fire and the aforementioned Air Force One. And he made one of the best underwater films of all time, a genuine world classic, Das Boot.

But his attention span, or his understanding of his target audience’s failing attention span, badly betrayed him here.

Check out the timeline. In this one the ship turns over (from another rogue wave) at approximately the fifteen-minute point, and the team of would-be survivors has started to climb out within the first half hour.

It thus only gives itself only about fifteen minutes to set up its characters, who are here largely defined not by their problems, but by their labels: a completely new set for this film, the beautiful stowaway, the ex-Mayor of New York, the suicidal gay guy, the young lovers, the dashing gambler, and the Designated Asshole.

It is possible for good actors to lend heft to such roles, but they need a certain minimum to worth with, and nobody here (not even Richard Dreyfuss, for pete’s sake), is more than a placeholder, here to shout urgent lines while dodging various dangers.

This is especially true of Andre Braugher, who plays the Captain. He dies early, of course, as the Captain in this story is supposed to, but the gap between a performer’s talent and the thinness of the character he’s been appointed to play has never been so vast. Is this what it’s come to, since Homicide? Doesn’t anybody have anything better for Braugher to do?

The Designated Asshole, played by Kevin Dillon, is a case that deserves special scrutiny. He is not an abrasive but essentially decent guy like Rogo, who causes problems because he has his own opinions. He is just a Designated Asshole. He acts like an Asshole, he dresses like an Asshole, he demonstrates he’s an Asshole, and – after demanding to be the first to cross a rickety structure – he dies, on cue and unmourned, an Asshole. The film doesn’t have any interest in characterizing him, or even the more important characters, any better than that.

There are some impressive set pieces. The struggle to cross a flaming scenic elevator atrium is more elaborate, in staging and in visual verve, than anything in either of the prior films. And the Dashing Gambler saves the day with a stunt that might have been considered over-the-top even in a superhero movie. But so what? With nobody to care about, and dialogue that from this point to almost the end of the film has been reduced to shouts of “Look out!” and “This way!”, it emerges as loud, colorful, fast-paced, and just as dull as the TV-movie.

There are some interesting, original situations. The only scene from this version that emerges as both new to this take and as great as anything in the original film is a period spent trapped in a vertical air shaft, as the people crammed near the top struggle with the grating that keeps everybody trapped in rising water. That’s a killer suspense sequence, and yes, fans of the original will be delighted to notice that they escape that trap by using a cross as a screwdriver.

There’s this, too. Unlike the folks from the 1972 version, these people actually start out with a plan for getting out once they reach the propeller assembly, one that makes sense within the context of the film. That’s good thinking, and in its own limited way an improvement on the original story. (It also, unfortunately, eliminates the faith angle, but hey, it’s a legitimately innovative plot point.)

It is of course woefully convenient for them that the disaster has conveniently left an inflated life raft floating a short swim from where they finally get out, one that indeed even has a working flare gun for their convenience. This is painful even though nothing that takes place before that point is even remotely convenient and it’s arguably just as convenient in the first film for Borgnine and company to reach the bottom of the ship just in time to hear the people walking around on the hull.)

But again: aside from the revelation that fireman-turned-mayor Kurt Russell is willing to die to save his daughter, and a suicidal subplot for the Richard Dreyfuss character that goes away as soon as the ship turns over, there are no character arcs here. These people are not tested. They are not revealed. They are just there.

By forsaking human drama, by failing to give its characters personalities, by eliminating subtext and by reducing almost the last hour and especially the last half-hour to shouting and yelling, with only scattered moments of identifiable human interaction, this version underlines exactly what has gone wrong with popular film since 1972. In 1972, Irwin Allen sank a ship with people on board. In 2006, Petersen sank a ship populated with stand-ins for people. In 1972, there was something going on behind the story. And in 2006, there were explosions going on instead of it.

The Captain’s Log

1972 version, a fine entertainment that looks better every year. 2005 version, three hours of made-for-TV lameness. 2006 version, a headache-inducing mess.

And now, the wife comes edging along the upside-down catwalk…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *1/2

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, Alex Kingston, others. 98 minutes. 1/2

In 1972 I was 9 years old and wasn’t allowed to go to movies by myself quite yet.  My mother, at the same time, needed someone to go see movies that my Dad just wouldn’t stir himself to see.  Bingo!  The weekend and days off school movie duo was formed. Thanks to this mother/daughter bonding,  I got taken to see such amazing fare as “The Bad News Bears” and The Towering Inferno.  But the one that makes this retelling of childhood interdependency important was The Poseidon Adventure.

Now, I can’t remember what day of the week this happened, but I can remember the theater, the snacks and the sound system fritzing in and out during the previews.  My mom threatened to walk out if the sound wasn’t fixed PRONTO! (Actually said from her seat as loudly as possible).  That can really make a film outing memorable.

Well, the sound got fixed, the movie rolled and my nine year old’s brain swore off ship travel for the everlovin’ future.

This film was my Jaws.  I thought that every Ocean liner was going to roll over in the next high wave.  I cried when my grandparents took their next cruise.  That year was absolute water hell for me.

So, did the original film make any kind of impression on me? Naah, not at all.  Just because I didn’t want to get on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues  ride for fear of drowning, had nothing whatsoever to do with The Poseidon Adventure.  Right?

Jump ahead to 2010.  Adam and I are discussing the prospective films to cover in this blog and up jumps good ole Poseidon.  I knew about the film remake, but had never heard (or had completely blocked from my mind) the TV mini.  So, we agreed they were ample fodder for our cannon of comparison.  Then, I won a free cruise.  Boy, can childhood trauma jump back and bite one’s butt.  Adam was ready to cover these early this year, but I begged off the watching until long after we returned from our trip. Did it make any difference?  Not really, but I may have actually enjoyed the cruise a bit more, not having the reminder looming in wait. (And yes, I fear being trapped in high rise fires too)!

OK  Garbage reminisces out of the way on to the work at hand.

Poseidon (1972):  Still a great adventure.  Fully developed characters, great effects and a story that says something about the constant struggle within each of us to balance survival with our humanity.  With the recent rewatch the Wesley effect of the child shall lead is a bit too thick, but I loved it back then.  The film also reminds everyone to never trust the guy wearing the uniform he’s always wrong and will die soon enough. (Show me a surviving crew member here).

Poseidon (2005):  Great idea in theory.  Make a 2-part miniseries (or maxi movie) using the source material.  Great, but what happened to the novel?  Somewhere in developmentland, some brainiac said “ditch the story, blow stuff up and make it less preachy”.  So they did.  They also slowed the action down to less than a turtle trot and added crap that was pure distraction.  Why steal from the original film’s key scenes, if they no longer tie the story together?  Nobody really took the time to read this script front to back.

Poseidon (2006):  Wow.  What can go wrong here?  Everything!  Lose the characters, dive into the emergency and never give your actors a chance to perform.  Here its all stunts and special effects.  Is anybody looking for story anymore?

Its fantastic that we live in an age where computers can seemingly generate anything we can dream up, but letting the effects run ramshod over the story, the settings, the very characters that make up any film is probably the main reason why I prefer the films from  the 30’s and 40’s.  Sure, the whole group of disaster films from the 70’s still fill my heart with nostalgia, but to me now they signal the beginning of the end.  This is when the MEGA movie began to take over and I began to lose interest in much of Hollywood’s output.

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Comments
  1. [...] Three Upside-Down Ships: God And THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE [...]

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  3. [...] The screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who as a major contributor to TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer should have done better; we can only guess if what was on-screen reflects her work or if it was mangled afterward. But it’s not the screenplay’s only violation of basic human nature. What follows is a pet peeve of mine. Any thriller where a character’s loved one – or even somebody they just sorta kinda like — dies in horrific circumstances, where those circumstances are later overcome at great personal risk, and where the person who should now finally have time to mourn his loss makes light-hearted jokes with his fellow survivors, just to provide an undiscerning audience with the fake comfort of a supposedly happy ending, is absolute bullshit. Give the ending of the remake more than five seconds of thought and it’s not just bad; it’s downright revolting. (For an example of a movie that gets it right, see the somber mood of the survivors even as they wait to be rescued at the end of the original The Poseidon Adventure.  Ernest Borgnine looks back at the disaster that claimed his wife, and weeps.) [...]

  4. [...] Three Upside-Down Ships: God And THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE [...]

  5. [...] Still, four years is an unusually narrow gap. It may not be our all-time record – that would be two POSEIDON ADVENTURE movies made a year apart –but it’s [...]

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