What is it about open water? There is a long cinematic tradition of huge vessels laid bare to encroaching ocean waters attempting mercilessly to pull them under, typically with some magnificent force of nature sending the resident luxury liner into splashy digital chaos. Iconic images of oceanic mishaps pervade the prototypic Hollywood adventure movie (including the highest-grossing film in the industry’s history), but few have ever been able to reconcile the inherent problem this causes, requisitely searching for other ways to drive the story that doesn’t involve its main premise.
This phenomenon is on eager display in Wolfgang Peterson’s half-baked remake “Poseidon,” the director’s faint echo of a summer blockbuster. The inescapable fact is that water alone makes for a pretty sorry villain, and a story as thinly drawn as this one calls out for a strong antagonist with almost embarrassing desperation. As they tread on through the ventilation and shaky corridors, the film’s characters just look befuddled, because as icily calculated and determined as the ever-persistent floodwaters might seem, at the end of the day, physics is physics. If, as it does here, a tidal wave hits the side of a massive cruise ship and flips it over, the likelihood is that yes, in fact, the passengers on board will drown.
Granted, there’s an oblique, if guilty, pleasure in watching a montage of breaking windows and falling chairs crash down the exploding cabin of a commercial liner, especially when it’s done by future matinee idols trying to earn their way into a film with characters of a collective mind educated beyond grade school. “Poseidon” has some spectacular sights in that oft-explored but nevertheless viable vein, but watching a group of interchangeable cardboard concoctions run from a stationary foe lost its soggy charm some time ago. The open sea has no beef and would be rather difficult to kill, though if Peterson (“Troy”) could find some way to do that in $160 million or less, we can rest assured he would.
The film stars Kurt Russell, an ominous sign in and of itself for a movie released past 1994, as a former firefighter/mayor/take-your-pick who, if his pre-disaster screen time is any indication, alternates between high-stakes gambling and insulting his 20-something daughter (the woefully underused Emmy Rossum, “Phantom of the Opera”). Along with his character comes an onslaught of nondescript everymen and women who inevitably become the central tenets of the story, conveniently coming together after a “rogue wave” capsizes their luxury liner and they are left alone to make it to the surface.
The 1972 original on which the film is based had the longer title “The Poseidon Adventure,” but Peterson opted here for the simpler “Poseidon,” perhaps because he is a very honest man. The film’s $160 million price tag, among the largest ever, is staggering. Does it really cost that much for a few big booms and a quick overheard shot of the ship flipping? Where did all that money go? Considering the ratio between the action and dialogue, if they paid the screenwriter by the word, he couldn’t have made more than $100.
But hang on a second. The movie does, to be fair, have accidents of genuine suspense, and there is even an early scene of startling immediacy involving an approximation of Rico from “Six Feet Under” (Freddy Rodr