Back in the ’70s, the term “disaster movie” referred to an honest-to-goodness genre and not merely to an overly budgeted film's box office potential. The certified king of the ’70s disaster movie genre was producer Irwin Allen, who gave audiences such high-body-count hits as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure (not to mention TV movie classics like Flood!, Fire! and Cave-In!). Over the years there have been sporadic attempts to revive the disaster movie genre (Armageddon, Volcano, The Day After Tomorrow), but few have been able to fully replicate Allen's patented formula.
Now, a mere 34 years after the original (and a scant several months after the made-for-TV version), comes a big screen redux of Allen's classic The Poseidon Adventure. As in the original (using Paul Gallico's well-thumbed novel as source material), it's New Year's Eve and a who's who of Hollywood B-listers are partying like it's 1999 out on a gigantic ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic. Wouldn't you know it? Along comes a monstrous tidal wave to crash the party.
As the opening credits roll, the cast list has to come as something of a disappointment to fans of the original. Coming off the golden era of the ’50s, the ’70s gave us a wealth of past-their-prime stars ready, willing and able to humiliate themselves for the sake of some gloriously over-the-top genre film. Among the “who will survive?” cast of the original was Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelly Winters, Roddy McDowall, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley and Stella Stevens. Once we get past headliners Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss (who seem to fit the mold pretty well), we're down to Josh Lucas (Stealth), Kevin Dillon (Matt Dillon's little brother), Jacinda Barrett (Urban Legends: Final Cut), Mike Vogel (who showed up on a few episodes of “Grounded for Life”), Mía Maestro (Nadia Santos from “Alias”) and Emmy Rossum (don't strain your brain, she was in that Phantom of the Opera film you didn't see). Oh, and for some reason Fergie from Black Eyed Peas is in there too. They just don't make stars like they used to. If they did, we'd still have “Battle of the Network Stars.” But we don't.
Well, at least the cast of Poseidon generates more heat than the TV movie version (which could only muster up Steve Guttenberg). Everybody acquits themselves admirably and manages to cry and/or scream on cue. It's perhaps a little unrealistic to see a cruise ship populated by so many attractive young people (as opposed to East Coast retirees), but we'll let that one slide.
Despite the lack of old-school stars tottering around waiting to get slaughtered, Poseidon does disaster quite well. Hollywood's wettest director, Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm), is called upon to steer this boat. He does so by taking the film's lean script (a mere 98 minutes, a good 20 less than the original) and pumping it full of as much tension as possible. He's helped immensely by the film's many incredible set-pieces, including several huge, completely rotational sound stages. (All the better to create the illusion of an upside-down boat, don't you know.)
Poseidon doesn't scrimp on the action. It takes probably 10 minutes for the film to introduce us to our stable of survivors. We don't get much more than their name and the briefest of backstories. (Russell used to be mayor of New York. Lucas is an ex-Navy guy. Dillon is a gambler. Dreyfuss is an architect. Maestro is a stowaway.) Once the introductions are over, the wave hits and it's all a question of who gets crushed, squashed, drowned or blown up next.
Poseidon isn't a clever film. But, then, it's not really trying to be. It's basically a slasher film (the genre that more or less replaced the disaster movie) with a sinking ship in the role of the machete-wielding manic. With their knuckles increasingly white, viewers stare at the screen in horrific fascination, waiting to see who will die next and in what nasty fashion. You pay your money, you get your thrills: Not a bad business deal in today's summer movie world. Frankly, I'd rather watch the cast of Mission: Impossible III get picked off one by one ... but that's just me.