| May 15, 2006

Somewhere in Hollywood, Wolfgang Peterson gets together with Jan de Bont, Roland Emmerich and Paul Verhoeven and reminisces about the mid-90’s like broken-down ex-jocks who remember their feats in high school. The days when having a camera and speaking with a European accent granted one access to enormous budgets and even grander box office receipts. A film like Poseidon would have succeeded handsomely in mid-90’s America, when rising waves of water could keep us glued to our seats. Unfortunately for Petersen and his ilk, the days of over-the-top CGI compensating for poor writing and pretty faces are drawing nigh.
A remake of the 1972 disaster epic, Poseidon tells the tale of a group of survivors struggling their way to the top of their capsized luxury liner. Although there’s no definitive reason or warning for the giant wave, one could assume that some underwater god heard Fergie (of Black Eyed Peas infamy) under the sea and decided to quash that painful sound once and for all. Like Noah’s ark, the group consists of a natural selection of each disaster film stereotype, from the devil-may-care hunk of a leader (Josh Lucas), to the overprotective father (Kurt Russell) of his beautiful daughter (Emmy Rossum), to the suicidal depressive (Richard Dreyfuss) to the single mother (Jacinda Barrett) of her cutesy son. Throw in a bunch of other characters whose sole purpose is to die in their own horrific way and you have one hundred minutes of underwhelming epic.
It used to be so easy. A line of dialogue here and an argument there and the audience could sympathize or connect emotionally to the on-screen players in an instant. But for me to connect with Richard Dreyfuss, I’m going to need a little bit more than disclosing that his boyfriend left him and then hitting on one of the survivors as they’re trying to escape the falling CGI around them. And if they writing or the acting failed, then you could be still be satisfied by the inherent drama of chaotic circumstances.
And there in lies Petersen’s (and to a broader extent, Hollywood’s) problem with the modern summer blockbuster. Simply put, Americans don’t scare so easily. Ten years ago, America was buoyed by a rising economy, the blossoming dot.com era and still only a few years separated from the fall of our greatest international enemy of the last half-century. So the idea that a tornado was the most terrifying thing imaginable was plausible and a lucrative.
Today, you asked someone what their idea of disaster is, they’d tell you about how three dollars buys you only one gallon of gasoline. Or how our nation’s troops are bogged down in a perpetual war. Or how every day, a different animal is carrying a disease that could potentially wipe out civilization. Watching an aquatastrophe like a giant wave crushing thousands of helpless men, women and children used to be something you only saw in a theatre. Now, we call it the 5 p.m. news coverage of Hurricane Katrina or the South Asian tsunami.
The best sequence in Poseidon is when Petersen harkens back to his Das Boot days and creates a claustrophobic environment with water streaming in from below the survivor’s feet. No CGI. No music. Just a darkened tunnel, two feet of width and one flashlight to illuminate the fear on their faces. If anything, Poseidon shouldn’t be seen as a failure of filmmaking, but a failure of understanding the times we live in–that nowadays, nothing is more terrifying than the human condition.

About the Author:

Del Harvey is a co-founder of Film Monthly. He is an independent filmmaker, film director, screenwriter, and film teacher, currently living in Chicago.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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