A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov
Under a lesser director than Wolfgang Petersen this would have turned into a boring, shallow, and too composed motion picture. The lesser director I’m referring to is Roland Emmerich. While he demonstrated promise with his 1998 Americanization of Japanese culture by the name of Godzilla, but his next two films are as bad as any two blockbusters to date. 2000’s The Patriot broke Mel Gibson’s streak of good films by being the most over-the-top, unexciting, and overall bad period film since, well, I can’t think of a film at this moment, but you get my point. Then came 2004’s The Day after Tomorrow – an equally unexciting despite it’s high-class special effects, cliched, boring, and underachieving motion picture that actually made my Bottom 10 of that year (# 9). So if Poseidon was a film of his this would have been a totally different review. But Wolfgang Petersen is definitely a talent behind the camera. His films are never boring (Troy and The Perfect Storm definitely proved that) and while they might not be as thematic as I would like, Petersen knows how to involve the audience in his stories, because he creates memorable characters and of course amazing scenes.
I’ll be honest, and admit that I never saw the original that this film is based on – The Poseidon Adventure. In fact, I can go as far as admitting that I didn’t even know what the plot was about until I saw the first preview for it. So, there I am, in one of those rare occasions when I know less about a given film than usual. It felt great, not being a know-it-all and having an unexpected experience at the theatres. Fortunately, this film was a pleasant surprise. It is an emotional roller coaster ride, at times claustrophobic, at times imposing, but almost always thrilling and even frightening.
This is the story of a group of individuals who are trying to escape from the hull of a capsized ship. So their bottom is now the top and their top is the bottom. It’s like Titanic but upside-down. The group of people that are trying to escape are led by Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas). They are trying to get on top (bottom), because the ship is acting like a giant air-bubble that will soon pop and they want to be out of there by the time that happens. The group consists of many different (if cliche) characters. There is Dylan of course, the confident (to a certain extent), athletic daredevil who is forced to save people who stray from the group at various points in the film. There is also the former hero/mayor and rich businessman (Kurt Russell) with his daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her boyfriend (Mike Vogel). And of course there is the religious, always afraid of everything, woman (Mia Maestro) and the old suicidal guy (Richard Dreyfuss), and the mother and son (Jacinda Barett and Jimmy Bennett). Oh, and don’t forget the drunk (played by a sleazy Kevin Dillon). So this cast of characters has to go through various hatches, has to hold their breath for a long time (insert David Blaine joke here), and of course have to mourn the ones that die off. It’s pretty simple really.
That might sound a lot like a plot we’ve heard before and that’s because it is. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich (The Cell) resorts to obvious cliches and horrible dialogue. Petersen probably vomited when he was handed the script, and his hatred for it can literally be sensed by just watching the film. He keeps dialogue short and stagnant, even though that still can’t make it bearable. Also, Petersen stretches out the tense scenes that require little or no dialogue to greater lengths, and the film is hard to watch, which is a big positive, considering the disaster genre has been pigeon-holed in the ‘fun’ movie category. But here is my question: Why Protosevich? Why give this screenwriter the job to script a $160 million film. I mean, didn’t the producers see that the worst part of The Cell was Protosevich’s script. Protosevich doesn’t even bother with a scientific explanation for the wave. I was really looking forward to some good science jargon, but nope, Protosevich is a screenwriter, not a scientist. It’s truly a shame, because this could have been an End-of-the-year Top 10 contender if someone like David Benioff (25th Hour, Troy, and Stay – all were contenders) had written it. I mean Benioff hasn’t had a mis-step in his career yet.
The acting here varies in quality. Josh Lucas does surprisingly well and he comes off as likeable for once, not a sleaze like he did in Stealth. Also, making a good impression is Jacinda Barrett who is trying to get out of the indie rut she has been stuck in. She shows a great range of emotions which is a great addition. And of course Richard Dreyfuss is in the cast list, and for those Dreyfuss fans who are worried about his performance in a major motion picture, don’t. It is arguable that he comes off as the most solid of all the actors, even though he is reduced to an old, suicidal, gay man. Well, that’s about all the people worth mentioning here. Kurt Russell doesn’t do a good job. He is only passable, but he should have been better. Same goes for Emmy Rossum and the all-of-a-sudden big name – Mike Vogel. Everyone else is terrible, except for Jimmy Bennett who isn’t playing a little annoying kid.
Technically, this is a great looking film, not because of the setting, but because of how great everything is designed and shot. Production Designer William Sandell has created a beautiful ship, and cinematographer John Seale takes advantage of it’s beauty and makes some great shots. But, his way of turning what was once beautiful into a living Hell, is also commendable. Out group of protagonists has to wade through dead bodies, get stuck in claustrophobia-inducing tunnels, and hold their breath in various underwater situations. Seale renders all those settings with expertise. The editing by Peter Honess is quick and the short running time of this film (only 99 minutes) will please audiences, because there is only so much non-stop action and emotion one can take.
One thing that surprised me is the amount of money spent on this script. Obviously, Petersen is a fan of big-budgets, with this being his fourth film in a row to have a big budget. With the budget for this one topping $160 million Petersen had all the freedom to create everything he could have imagined. But this film is very subdued. The only special effects in the film are in the beginning when the wave hits, and even the wave isn’t as impressive as the ones in The Perfect Storm. Everything else takes place inside the ship. I mean it seems to me that most of the money was spent on the 30-second sequence of the ship sinking at the end. Obviously it’s a grand scene.
So if you’re expecting a special effects extravaganza that a big budget film usually promises, you will be disappointed. But if you want to see a tense, dramatic, and often disturbing film that treats the situation at hand in a realistic fashion, this is the film for you. Of course you’ll have to sit through some bad dialogue and a lazy script, but the film is too short for any of those to get tiring.