The Theory of Chaos

Friday, May 19, 2006


Full review behind the jump

: Wolfgang Petersen
Writer: Mark Protosevich, based on the novel by Paul Gallico
Producers: Mike Fleiss, Akiva Goldsman, Duncan Henderson, Wolfgang Petersen
Stars: Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum, Jacinda Barrett, Jimmy Bennett, Mike Vogel, Mía Maestro, Andre Braugher, Kevin Dillon

I’m trying for the life of me to figure out where the money went. Normally I don’t make a movie’s budget part of the critical formula, but the only apparent purpose behind Poseidon, a remake of the seminal disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure, is to spend a great deal of money. I’ve seen reports of a budget ranging from $150M to $165M, and if a studio’s going to lie about a budget it will be to pretend it cost less than it actually did, not more.

So what did they spend it on? The movie is shot entirely on soundstages in Los Angeles, which are admittedly elaborate in that they must be duplicated as upside-down, floodable versions of themselves. And the titular ocean liner, constructed in a computer for sweeping camera shots, looks terrible. We get a long time to scrutinize its fakery. They even skimped on an orchestra, hiring composer Klaus Badelt to provide one of those too-in-vogue wall-of-synthesizer musical scores scrubbed free of any troubling human touch or warmth.

Titanic, for all its Tiger Beat-frippery in the story department, actually went and built a full scale mock-up of the damned ship in question, and gave you three hours of spectacle for your ticket. By contrast, Poseidon is stunningly short as your star-studded “A” picture goes, barely 95 minutes before the credits start to roll. It might sound like contradiction to be demanding more of a movie that doesn’t pass muster even at its current length, but we might have had time then for something other than an eventually-dull parade of one reel of flaming peril after another.

Our characters don’t really have emotional lives, they have backstories which they occasionally stop to talk about. Perhaps as compensation, their backstories are almost grotesquely convoluted. Take Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), whom everyone in the movie recognizes. He was a New York fireman who achieved fame rescuing people from a tragedy which remains nameless, and was subsequently elected Mayor of the city, and then left that post for reasons which I think have something to do with why his wife isn’t around anymore. The other characters are too polite to be clear on this point.

And what does any of that have to do with anything when a “rogue wave”, a moon-eclipsing giant tide of fake digital-water, capsizes the luxury ship and leaves it upside-down, exploding, and sinking all at once? From that point on what is required of Russell is to a) be rugged and heroic, b) look after his daughter (Emmy Rossum), while learning to trust her independence and not be so threatened by her boyfriend (Mike Vogel), and c) nod knowingly whenever the conversation turns to fires. The movie has no time for reflection or growth, all crucial emotional moments are handled by anguished facial expressions and, if they can spare the time, one line of dialogue.

Now you’ve got Richard Dreyfuss on board, playing a fussy architect in a suicidal funk over being abandoned by his longtime male lover, and he’s got an Academy Award in his trophy case so you know they will be quality anguished facial expressions. But how much good can he do with deathless dialogue like: “I’m an architect, these boats aren’t built to float upside-down!”? I kept waiting for him to punctuate it with: “I learned that in architect school!

After the initial catastrophe, the Captain (Andre Braugher) orders everyone to stay put in the ballroom and wait for help. Well, it doesn’t take an architect to see the flaws in this plan – namely the giant glass windows everywhere. Still, only our small band of movie stars, with a few disposable supporting characters in tow, rebel against his instructions and begin climbing towards what used to be the lowest bowels of the ship, seeking air and an exit. Providing the daredevil Ying to Ramsey’s stoic Yang is Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas), who used to serve on submarines in the Navy but is now a professional poker shark. Somehow, this combination of elements makes him a Zen Master at survival dilemmas, from the beginning he looks and acts like a man who gets into these sorts of scrapes all the time. It bears thinking just how weird that is.

Dylan is protecting a single mother (Jacinda Barrett) he’s probably wishing he hadn’t hit on, and her little sprite Conor. Conor is played by Jimmy Bennett; who, having already been kidnapped in both last year’s Hostage and this year’s Firewall now easily qualifies as this generation’s Most Imperiled Movie Tyke.

And they all climb and swim and gulp for air and scream and dodge fire and climb some more. Screenwriter Mark Protosevich serves up a balanced menu of breathless set pieces. Some are imaginative enough, as when our party is trapped inside a vertical air shaft with water rising beneath and an inconveniently screwed-in grate above. Or when they’re in a giant ballast chamber which they can only escape by flooding. But these are little more than cinematic Rube Goldberg contraptions, and it’s usually absurdly simple to predict who’s going to come out the other end alive and who’s going to suffer a noble, tragic, or karmically-justified death in between.

And I still don’t know where they spent all the money. It must have been the catering.


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