Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Poseidon Adventure Redux

I paid good money to see the original Poseidon Adventure back in 1972 and if you want to know the whole truth, I enjoyed it. Then. Over the years the movie seemed to become increasingly unbelievable, as many of Irwin Allen's projects did. Therefore it was with less than high expectations that I approached the television remake of the movie, particularly after having been subjected to such projects as Vampire Bats, Category 6 and it's sequel Category 7 and of course 10.5. All are of course the sort of subjects that Irwin Allen would have enjoyed, and might even have made in his day. I have to admit that I braced for something of less than high quality. Fortunately the television version wasn't as bad as it very well could have been. It wasn't great, it wasn't really even above average, but it was still an enjoyable bit of entertainment.

I think that everyone is sufficiently familiar with the story of the original Poseidon Adventure that I don't need to go into detail about most of the plot of the remake except in so far as it differs from from the original. There are really two major points here. First there is a whole terrorism plot, which is what causes the ship to "turn turtle" in the first place (I'll go into that shortly). The terror plot is briefly touched at the start of the movie, with a raid by American special ops forces on a terrorist organization which is arranging a series of attacks against "soft targets" on land and in the air for New Years Eve. The pattern is such that the investigators "know" that there should be a sea component but that part of the information has been destroyed and there are no living terrorists left at their headquarters who can explain what is going on. It is however enough to cause the Department of Homeland Security to put an "sea marshal" aboard the cruise ship Poseidon. He's Mike Rogo (played by Adam "no I'm not related to Alec or the rest of that bunch" Baldwin). By the way, here's a trick question - why is a Homeland Security "sea marshal" abord the ship when there are virtually no US flagged cruise ships in existance (lrgely thanks to union rules and tax structures). The notion of a bomb on a ship actually borrows from a movie that is one of my favourite thrillers, Juggernaut. The other major plot aspect is the tensions within the Clarke Family - dad Richard, mom Rachel, daughter Shelby and young son Dylan. The Clarkes are a "family in crisis" - dad is a failed writer who is living off of mom's fortune (she turned a small boutique into a multi-million dollar clothing chain) - and their marriage is going through such a rough patch that when they get a suite aboard the Poseidon Rachel and Shelby sleep in one bed while Richard and Dylan sleep in the other. So naturally when the comely masseuse aboard the ship comes on to Richard he succumbs as often as is physically possible for a man of Steve Guttenberg's age. I found the terrorism plot interesting, and it did provide a couple of the best scenes in the movie. In one a terrorist kills the bridge crew, turns off all of the equipment that might save the ship before blowing his own brains out lest he be tempted to turn them back on. The other has Captain Paul Gallico (played by the criminally underused Peter Weller - the name is a nice tribute to the author of the original book by the way) striding up the main staircase from the ballroom, the only man left who can save the ship, and being shot by the remaining terrorist. On the other hand I found the concentration on the travails of the Clarke marriage to be tedious. It took time away from us learning more about other characters.

This remake of The Poseidon Adventure is scarcely perfect, or even quite as good as it might have been had it been presented in the manner it was intended when it was produced as a four hour miniseries. The overwhelming sense I got when watching it was that there was significant information that was missing which would must have been in the hour or so that was cut. There were questions which needed to be answered which might well have been if that hour had been included - how did young Dylan Clarke know that Mrs. Rosen could make the swim and what were all those "challenges" he was referring to. For that matter why was Dylan given virtually free run of all areas of the ship simply on the authority of the Restaurant Manager (or whatever he was). In another area, I may have missed something but it's only in the last few minutes - where Bishop Schmidt is arguing that he should set off the second bomb - that I found out that Rogo was married, although his wife wasn't on the trip. There are other structural problems. I wasn't particularly happy that we were almost immediately "told" who we were supposed to care about and be interested in through the device of the characters having their ship ID pictures shot and the ID card - with name - shown on screen. I'm just enough of a stickler for dramatic tension that I'd like to be kept guessing about who is going to live and who is going to die. For me it would have been far more interesting to let us get to know a larger number of people so that when the ship capsizes and the ballroom scene occurs we're shocked when some characters that we've invested some interest in die by crashing to the floor or ceiling. There's no dramatic tension in knowing from the beginning which characters are going to be the prime focus of our interest. Dramatic tension is further undermined by intercutting scenes of the rescue effort focused mainly at 5th Fleet Headquarters and with the Navy SEALs. For me the problem with this is that the movie should be almost entirely confined within the ship - will they make it out and if they do,will there be someone out there to help them. The way that this was written, we know that there will be rescuers waiting for them and able to help them with more than just getting off the hull of the ship and into boats. The original benefits from the sort of claustrophobic nature of the audience being as trapped as the people on the ship.

There's been a lot of talk elsewhere about the implausability of the single terrorist bomb causing the ship to turn over. Actually I think it is far more realistic than the whole "giant rogue wave" scenario which was used in the original movie. I am far more willing to suspend my disbelief over this method of inverting the ship than I was with the rogue wave theory. The ship being inverted did lead to one of the biggest technical goofs in the whole movie though. It is a key plot element that Rachel Clarke be able to email a message telling about the emergency to her "Christmas List" using the ship's Internet cafe. The only trouble is that a passenger ship at sea connects to the Internet using a satellite link, and all of the ship's satellite gear was pointing to the bottom of the ocean so sending the email was impossible. One thing that really bothered me even more than this was the fact that the only survivors were from the main ballroom. Now I get that this is TV and there isn't the budget to show even a tenth of the ship's 3,500 passengers but why was there no one alive outside of the ballroom? Even in the original movie there is a sequence where the survivors from the ballroom encounter another, larger, group led by one of the ship's officers heading in a different direction - as it turns out to their deaths. Yet we are left thinking that anyone who wasn't originally in the ballroom and thus under the influence of the ship's hotel services manager - a man suddenly given the sort of petty dictatorial powers that such a fool dreams of without really knowing what he's supposed to do or being able to make the right sort of decisions - just laid in their bunks and died. It's just impossible to believe that only the fifteen or so people who left the ballroom were the only ones to survive the initial accident and tried to escape the ship. Another problem I had was with the ease with which Rogo was able to find Richard and the second party of survivors and reunite them with the main group with seemingly greater ease than the other group had faced. On some level it makes Mrs. Rosen's sacrifice less significant if there's another route to the opening in the hull that doesn't require the survivors to go through the same trials that the original group did.

The cast of this version is nowhere near as strong as the original which included five once or future Oscar winners (Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters who also earned a nomination for the role of Belle Rosen in the movie). I wasn't terribly impressed with Rutger Hauer as Bishop Schmidt. He didn't seem to have the same sort of passion that Gene Hackman brought to the part of Father Scott. In the original so that I didn't believe him as someone who was having a crisis of faith. As for Steve Guttenburg in the role of Richard Clarke, well the less said the better about him - I've never been a fan. On the other hand Adam Baldwin is always enjoyable even though in this movie he doesn't get the chance to reveal his funny side. I rather liked Sylvia Syms version of Mrs. Rosen and her death scene was a rather tender moment.

On the whole, The Poseidon Adventure wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been and significantly better than some of what we've seen recently. Comparisons with the original movie are misleading, to the point where, if this weren't called The Poseidon Adventure reaction from some people might be different. The cruise ship business is booming right now, and mega-ships resembling the TV movie's Poseidon do exist and represent a potential target for terrorists. However calling this The Poseidon Adventure does lead to comparisons with the original, most of which aren't going to be favourable. Setting those sorts of comparisons aside, if I were grading it I'd give it passing marks, although not with high honours.

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