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May 18, 2006

Growing up in the '70s, there was a genre of movie that with each release built anticipation in the heart of every child. Well, I can't speak for every child's heart, but certainly mine. Third only to a new "Planet of the Apes" sequel, or the latest Hammer Films horror import, a new "disaster movie" would instantly have me begging my parents to take me to the theater, even for multiple viewings.

From my recollection, it all started in 1972 with the release of "The Poseidon Adventure." More often than not, the name of producer "Irwin Allen" was above the title followed by an apostrophe "s" as if he owned the movie. But really it served as an indication of a formula you could be sure to expect: after a sometimes-lengthy introduction of characters to establish the drama, they would all be thrust into the fallout of a terrible catastrophe.

Within an eight-year period, a similar cast of characters (usually portrayed by respected big-time movie stars whose appearances in these movies signaled a downward turn in their ability to obtain legitimate work) suffered through disasters on land, air and sea. What started with a capsized ocean liner led to earthquakes, fires, airplane crashes, swarms of killer bees, and even capsized airplanes ("Airport '77").

By 1980, the formula had grown tiresome. The 1979 sequel to "The Poseidon Adventure" indicated a lack of imagination to create new disasters, and the title of the final movie in the era, "When Time Ran Out" (1980), represented not only the situation for the victims of an island volcano, but also the situation for the entire disaster genre.

Coincidentally, the man whose name was synonymous with this kind of movie was also the man who directed two of the final ones ("Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" and "The Swarm") almost like no other director would be involved and Irwin Allen himself tried desperately (and unsuccessfully) to keep the genre on life support.

While we haven't really seen a modern incarnation of the 1970s genre, we have seen the occasional big-budget disaster movie in recent years. And last weekend brought us a tribute to the granddaddy of them all with "Poseidon," directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who knows a thing or two about watery epics, having also directed "Das Boot" and "The Perfect Storm." But I was more fearful of a remake of this childhood favorite than I even was for another remake of "King Kong."

In my memory, the original "The Poseidon Adventure" was a great movie. With a soft spot in my heart forever reserved for it, I debated viewing it again before I saw the remake. I could not resist, much like I feel compelled to watch every previous film when a new sequel is released in theaters.

You know what? The original stands up pretty well 34 years later. Sure, parts of it are dated and campy, but I'd argue that it is more faithful to the time period than a movie like "Titanic." That is to say, you know the 1970s costumes and hairstyles are authentic for the era, not recreations that somehow just don't seem realistic in a way you can't put your finger on. And for that time, the special effects were pretty darned good, with nary a fake scene in its entire two-hour running time. (Even "Titanic" had that awful scene of Leonardo and Kate running down the hall with water rushing after them, the blue outlines around their bodies exposing more of the process than the action itself.)

To its credit, "Poseidon" jettisons the part of the stereotypical disaster formula where the victims are warned in advance of impending doom and choose to ignore the warnings; I was grateful to not see that subplot one more time. However, it's downright silly that in this day and age with all our modern technology, this crew has absolutely no indication that a gigantic "rogue wave" is heading for their ship. Even a horrendous TV movie version last year took an extra hour to explain how the ship could sink after a terrorist bomb goes off on board; in retrospect, that wasn't such a ridiculous idea.

And in its rush to get to the action, the introductions to the paper-thin characters are brief and hurried. Again, I give "Poseidon" credit for attempting to create more complex, less stereotypical personalities with some fresh dynamics. However, any attempts to create concern for the drama of their personal situations absolutely fail.

I don't blame the actors, Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas, (with his scary-unreal blue eyes -- are those real or computer-generated special effects?) carry off their iconic roles capably enough. But their basic conflict is immediately forgotten, and Lucas' initial selfishness and aversion to helping others becomes a moot point once the first passenger joins him on his journey up to the bottom of the boat.

I'm going to jump onto a life raft and claim that the late Shelley Winters is to blame for any failures of the new version. Anybody who has seen the original remembers the classic scene where Winters, nearly as big as the ship, saves everyone by sacrificing herself as she swims underwater with a rope to draw the others across. The new "Poseidon" has not a single scene to rival that one. There's no story. There's no heart.

"Poseidon" is a non-stop action movie, but it offers absolutely nothing else. Even more of a lightweight diversion than last week's "Mission: Impossible 3," the second offering in this year's weekly summer movie extravaganza does not bode well for the rest of the season. While upcoming appearances of X-Men, Superman and various Pirates of the Caribbean once seemed promising, I have a searing abdominal cramp that suggests otherwise.

All my hopes for the best summer ever may soon be lying overturned on the bottom of the ocean like the once-majestic cruise ship, Poseidon.

  • Jeff Owens is co-owner of Couch Potato Video in De Soto and an avowed movie buff.

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