What is it exactly that draws people to disaster films? Is it simply an excuse to showcase really cool special effects sequences, or do we somehow gain inspiration from watching everyday heroes face impending death through courageous efforts to survive? It seems odd for us as a culture to be wary of a remarkably well-made piece of history like United 93 because it's "too soon" after the 9/11 attacks that inspired it, yet look forward to a fictional movie like Poseidon, in which audiences anticipate the realistic looking sequence where hundreds (if not thousands) of innocent lives are killed in spectacular ways.

It's New Year's Eve, and the many passengers are about to do The Wave

It's New Year's Eve, and the many passengers are about to do The Wave

Your opinion of disaster flicks will determine your enjoyment of this one, a fairly by-the-numbers effort based on the book The Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico, as well as the classic 1972 film of the same name. The story is essentially the same, though all the characters have been changed to presumably modernize the setting and pacing.

It's New Year's Eve, and hundreds of passengers are celebrating aboard the titular luxury cruise ship in the North Atlantic. Unlike the original, there's absolutely no warning of the 150-foot "rogue wave" that strikes the ship shortly after midnight—if nothing else, waves are timely and dramatic. The Poseidon is capsized, causing most of the passengers to fall from floor to ceiling. Those not killed or injured by the impact are generally crushed by other falling objects, electrocuted, burned from a flash fire, or else drowned, and Poseidon spares little expense in depicting the horrific tragedy with impressive detail and effects.

But some do survive—initially—through the protection of the expansive ballroom. And though the Captain (Andre Braugher) insists everyone stay in the safety of the "air bubble" until help arrives, Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas) figures his odds are better by heading to the top, er, bottom of the ship. He's quickly joined by precocious nine-year-old Conor James (Jimmy Bennett) and his single mom Maggie (Jacinda Barrett), as well as Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), a concerned father searching for his young daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) and her fiancé Christian (Mike Vogel). Also tagging along are depressed gay architect Richard Nelson (an aging Richard Dreyfus), pretty stowaway Elena Gonzalez (Mia Maestro), young attendant Marco Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez), and some sleazy jerk named Lucky Larry (Kevin Dillon).

Josh Lucas as Dylan Johns, trying to lead the survivors to safety

Josh Lucas as Dylan Johns, trying to lead the survivors to safety

Now that you're properly introduced, it goes without saying that not all of these intrepid characters will survive their journey off the Poseidon. With a ridiculously shallow character like Lucky Larry, you half expect a meteorite to fall out of the sky and kill him early on—and that's actually not far from the truth. But what about the rest? "There's nothing fair about who lives and dies," says the elder Ramsey, but they do the best they can, pursued by rising water levels as they make their way through the death traps of the wreckage to try to find their way to safety.

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Say what you will about films of this kind, but Poseidon generally looks impressive. Director Wolfgang Petersen knows a thing or two about staging suspenseful sequences involving water and tight spaces, having previously made Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. The smartly crafted sets allow for some good old-fashioned moviemaking effects. Only the exterior shots of the ship appear unconvincing as chintzy-looking CGI creations, despite an imaginative tour of the Poseidon during the opening credits.

But why the drastic character overhaul? The source material isn't exactly classic literature—the atrocious dialogue of the original film's first 30 minutes was the worst thing about it. But gone are Gene Hackman's Reverend Scott, Shelley Winters' Belle Rosen, and Ernest Borgnine's Officer Rogo, which robs this new film of more poignant examples and discussions of self-sacrifice and faith.

Christian (Mike Vogel), Jennifer (Emmy Rossum), and Richard (Richard Dreyfuss) are afraid, very afraid

Christian (Mike Vogel), Jennifer (Emmy Rossum), and Richard (Richard Dreyfuss) are afraid, very afraid

In fact, though the original movie's character development was rather flimsy, you came to care for them despite their irritating introductions. Here the relationships are paper thin, with characterizations created out of contrivance. Johns is a professional gambler … who also happens to be ex-Navy with submarine experience. Ramsey is the former mayor of New York City … who also happens to be a retired firefighter. Thus the screenplay (by relative newcomer Mark Protosevich) cheats the audience into thinking these are everyday survivors. But in reality they're conveniently established as necessary to become superheroes that serve the action sequences, such as Johns making an impossible dive into water strewn with fire and debris in an attempt to create a bridge across a chasm. Why not just make them a crewmember that's ex-Navy and a firefighter on vacation? It's no less coincidental and that much more plausible.

That's what made the original film superior in story. It followed the methodical (sometimes tedious) arguments and decisions that would bring an everyday group of people from point A to B and everywhere in between. Here the focus is more on action and intensity, and while that's better for the adrenaline rush of a popcorn movie, it misses the opportunity for a more realistic storyline. Also, by shifting the focus from "how to survive" to "who dies next," the filmmakers unintentionally make The Poseidon Adventure more like Ten Little Indians or Final Destination.

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Still, I'd be lying if I said that Poseidon wasn't at least partly enjoyable. It more or less meets expectations with a fair share of suspense and impressive action sequences that remain true to the spirit of recent films in the genre. This certainly isn't as dramatic as Titanic, and the original Poseidon Adventure is still slightly better. But if disaster films are your cup of tea and you don't mind Hollywood tinkering with the original, there's little reason to talk you out of this voyage. However, if the concept seems too tired, formulaic, or depressing for your entertainment value, then don't bother boarding this ship.

Talk About It

  Discussion starters
  1. In one particularly intense scene, a character is forced to shake another survivor loose from him in order to save his own life. Did he do the right thing? What would you have done? What allows us to make such split second life-and-death decisions with any sense of morality?

  2. Many characters have to cope with the death of a friend or loved one, forced to leave them behind as they move on to safety. Do you think you might struggle with that if placed in a similar situation? Why or why not? What factors would affect your decision making the most?

  3. Is Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell's character) too domineering a father? Do you feel his concerns over his daughter Jennifer's relationship with her fianc are justified or more paranoid?

  4. Do you find disaster films depressing or, depending how things turn out, uplifting? What can we learn from seeing people experience tragedy-and facing our own mortality? Is there a danger of exploiting the action and desensitizing us to the needs of others?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

There are only a few profanities in Poseidon, but the film really earns its PG-13 rating for intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril, including a couple of scary scenes involving a little boy. When the ship is capsized, most of the passengers are killed from falling, burning, electrocution, drowning, or being crushed by heavy objects. Though not a particularly bloody movie, there's horrific realism to these deaths, with bodies strewn throughout the ship. Consider whether or not you would show your children the horrific after-effects of the 9/11 attacks when deciding on this film.

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Josh Hurst

from Film Forum, 05/25/06
Gene Edward Veith (World Magazine) says: "The movie shows some acts of self-sacrificial heroism, but Poseidon is mostly a sensory onslaught of dead bodies—falling, burned, piled up, floating. Also explosions, falling equipment, drownings, and crawling through claustrophobia-inducing passages as the water keeps rising."

from Film Forum, 05/18/06
Like Failure to Launch and Stick It, Poseidon seems like a gift from film studios to film critics. After all, an enormous blockbuster about an enormous ship that, despite its promises of greatness, crashes and burns? The potential for bad shipwreck jokes is endless.

Of course, Poseidon has a historical pedigree that those other films lack. A remake of the classic 1972 disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure, Hollywood's latest big-budget parade of explosions and general carnage also boasts a big-name director; helming this ship is none other than Wolfgang Peterson, the man behind such previous deep-sea disaster flicks as Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. The setting is New Years' Eve, onboard a colossal luxury cruise ship. The passengers are having a doozy of a celebration, at least until some giant waves crash the party. The ship is capsized, and only a few passengers survive.

Those that do survive, though—including characters played by Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, and Emmy Rossum—are urged to stay inside the safety of an air bubble at the bottom (i.e., top) of the ship. Needless to say, this advice is quickly discarded, and a gang of survivors—led by renegade Dylan Johns (Lucas)—head up (i.e., to the bottom) of the ship in search of safer ground.

Christian critics aren't terribly impressed.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls the film "a reasonably effective but inferior remake of 1972's fondly remembered, and already remade for television, disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure," adding that Poseidon "is far from a great film, but it's got enough escapist value to keep it afloat."

Meanwhile, Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) calls the film "an update that doesn't just abbreviate the original title, it hacks off virtually any semblance of meaningful plot established in that version's opening half hour. It's as if the director said, Hey, we've got CG now, let's cut straight to the big wave."

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Giving the film an unfavorable comparison to Titanic, Christa Bannister (Crosswalk) says "there's just not enough of the human-interest element in Poseidon to balance out the tragedy, which ultimately makes the film sink even when the boat was still above water."

Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Spotlight) also criticizes the film's characterization: "In Poseidon we get establishing characteristics rather than character development, so when the rogue wave topples the ship a scant fifteen to twenty minutes in, we are left with one long chase sequence. As well as being flat, the characters are relatively static; they do not change much during the film nor respond to what happens to them. The simply run from one room to the next."

Mainstream critics say Poseidon sinks.

Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril)
Directed By
Wolfgang Petersen
Run Time
1 hour 38 minutes
Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum
Theatre Release
May 12, 2006 by Warner Bros.
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