Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon—officially based on the Paul Gallico novel and not the 1972 Irwin Allen spectacle The Poseidon Adventure—has its own agenda essentially to wash over the surface of its characters with the same force as its troublesome "rogue wave." Not long after a loving (or is it lusting?) 360° opening shot of the doomed luxury liner Poseidon, the wave hits, taking any semblance of real drama with it.
As scripted by Mark Protosevich (The Cell), Poseidon establishes a core of characters the film will earnestly follow once the ship goes belly up. The small, determined band making its way toward the ship's hull hopes to escape through the propeller tubes before the increasingly waterlogged ship drowns the lot of them. Two alpha males vie for leadership—Josh Lucas' gung-ho ex-Navy riverboat gambler and Kurt Russell's shamed former NYC mayor—but aside from a brief tussle of masculine pride, they disagree on little.
Protosevich instead puts his eggs into the basket of a young engaged couple comprised of Russell's daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her hubby (Mike Vogel). Will they live to see their wedding day? Among the others are Mia Maestro (Alias) as a jittery stowaway, Richard Dreyfuss as a spurned, suicidal gay man, and Hollywood's panicked-kid du jour (Jimmy Bennett of Firewall and Hostage), who looks like the wet rat wriggling in Petersen's "better mousetrap" action movie.
In its important details, Petersen's half-hearted tribute to excess recalls Titanic (note the telltale staircase in the opulent lobby) and The Abyss (the near-drowning and drowning sequences) at least as much as The Poseidon Adventure. Mercifully, Petersen doesn't dawdle, sending the actors through one test after another: the high-wire crossing of the flaming lobby, passing levels and bulkheads while pursued or immersed by water, and a claustrophobic vent escape that will have you going until its inevitably contrived solution. As abetted by DP John Seale and thumping composer Klaus Badelt, Petersen demonstrates technical expertise, but little imagination.
Sadly, the closest Petersen comes to camp is in the pre-disaster festivity, a New Year's party where the captain (Andre Braugher, who better have been paid well) spouts about the ancient Greco-Roman god of the sea then introduces Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. When both face an action orgy of broken glass, flash fire, and rushing water, one has to chuckle at the alternate-universe demise of a Grammy-winning celebrity (okay, she's playing someone named "Gloria," but you know what I mean).
There's camp, and there's just plain lousy writing, as when Kevin Dillon says, "You just don't get the name 'Lucky Larry'—you gotta be lucky" mere seconds before...well, take a guess. Despite Petersen's customary energy, Poseidon is defined by its rote action-adventure beats and enthusiasm for anonymous corpses. It's a disaster movie for a nation haunted by disaster (playing as it is next to theatres showing United 93) but it doesn't seek the dubious goal of high-camp release or the perhaps equally dubious, but more interesting goal of thematic reflection on survival of the fittest.
The closest we get is one striver's observation, after all of the non-white characters have been glibly dispatched, "There's nothing fair about who lives or dies." Certainly not with Protosevich and Petersen pulling the strings, but all's fair at the box office. Here's hoping audiences take a pass on this dead man's float.