When I found out Wolfgang Petersen directed Poseidon, the movie took on an entirely new meaning.
Wolfgang Petersen is the man who directed 2000’s The Perfect Storm, and six years later Poseidon (2006). Poseidon is Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence at work; it’s a Kenosis of The Perfect Storm; it’s Wolfgang Petersen’s redemption; a perfection of The Perfect Storm.
Let’s be honest, The Perfect Storm was adapted to film in 2000 to bank off of the Titanic‘s tragedy-at-sea success. I mean 1996 – 1998 can be summed up as the golden years for disaster films:
- Twister (1996)
- Independence Day (1996)
- Mars Attacks! (1996)
- Volcano (1997)
- Dante’s Peak (1997)
- Titanic (1997)
- Armageddon (1998)
- Deep Impact (1998)
There’s hundreds more, but these were huge when I was growing up. Nobody in my generation missed these. It’s why modern comedies still make a joke out of which one was Armageddon and which one was Deep Impact. (After this, disaster movies had to get more creative since all the natural disaster titans had been taken.)
So make no mistake, The Perfect Storm wanted Titanic success, but was limited by the source material as it was a small ship with a small crew. The Titanic was a massive cruise ship so historical fiction made sense. Who’s to say a “Jack” and “Rose” didn’t exist on that vessel? But Jack and Rose are two characters on a ship of thousands… unlike the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm which needed to be true to Captain Tyne and his crew because of how granular it was.
The Perfect Storm’s main problem is identity, not knowing whether to be historical fiction or a true story and so it fails as both.
But Poseidon is a complete work of fiction that succeeds on every possible level. The Perfect Storm was bogged down trying to provide all the facts in a work of fiction, but Poseidon needn’t any research since the characters are passengers on the ship. The Perfect Storm shows all characters in a sympathetic light to honor the dead the story is based on, but Poseidon needn’t worry about how characters are portrayed as they serve one function: to act as the anchor as the audience travels from set piece to set piece. Take Kevin Dillon’s character Lucky Larry who, in one scene saves a boy caught beneath a scaffold and in the very next scene is a violent and drunk asshole so the other characters can willingly let him die without undergoing any moral dilemmas.
It is sheer brilliance!
To the Port-Holes to the Plot-Holes to the Storm Dropped off Poseidon’s Balls
(As sung by Lil John & the East Side Boyz)
Let’s start with the brilliant premise. A cruise ship on New Year’s Eve is suddenly hit by a rogue wave (more like an impromptu tsunami) and the boat capsizes. Fuck physics and buoyancy, but what’s especially funny about this premise is this is actually more true to the true story behind The Perfect Storm. As the Coast Guard’s research shows, the Andrea Gail was hit suddenly, without warning, by a massive wave. They said to imagine it like you’re walking in your house and upon walking into your bedroom, you’re hit by a massive wave — that sudden.
Of course, The Perfect Storm couldn’t do that because it would be labelled anti-climatic, so instead the crew sees it and fights it head-on. Poseidon actually perfected telling the truer story — hah!
Now the wave hits just as the ball drops (remember, it’s New Year’s), so everyone (crew and travelers included) are in the main hall to celebrate — this way, you can focus on the ten or so main characters and not worry about why you don’t see people running around and why you don’t see people on every floor.
“But” you say inquisitively, “I find it hard to believe everyone celebrates New Year’s, I mean” and your eyes light up with a non-racist epiphany, “like Chinese people! They celebrate Chinese New Year, they wouldn’t join the festivities” and then with an air of disbelief, you say, “and there’s no way this mammoth cruise ship doesn’t have any Chinese people.”
Actually it does have Chinese people and they are not in the main hall celebrating, so you’re correct! However, when the rogue wave hit, it caused a flash fire in the Chinese residents’ hall — BAM! Logic ratified! Additionally (and so as not to seem racist despite having all the Chinese people die in one scene), the people in the kitchens and those running the ship are all struck by a flash fire! BAM!
So then our heroes, each with their own agenda, decide to head up towards the bottom of the boat because our scoundrel (with-a-heart-of-gold) hero knows they can get out through the propeller.
But wouldn’t other people travel up? Goodness no! The Captain tells everyone a distress call went out before they capsized, so they will be rescued satiating everyone’s curiosity. But how would the rescue crew save them? Flip the boat over– hup, up, up! Don’t think about it because it doesn’t matter, the main hall’s glass breaks and they all drown.
So Kurt Russell and John Lucas lead a ragtag group of characters up through the bottom of the ship to escape and be rescued. Now, the movie gets to do whatever it wants!
This movie has so many moments of unadulterated brilliance, it’s ridiculous.
Take for instance, when the characters need to cross an empty elevator shaft… but of course, the last two to cross lose their footing and dangle. Together they form a human chain, John Lucas holds Richard Dreyfuss while a nondescript crew member clings to Dreyfuss’ leg. Suddenly, the elevator at the top begins to slip. If it falls it will crush them all (well, crush two of them, Lucas would be chopped in half).
Now it’s important to understand 3 things about this scene.
- Dreyfuss is gay and his soulmate just dumped him in a phone call.
- Because of (1), Dreyfuss was going to commit suicide by jumping off the ship… but turned tail when he saw the incoming wave.
- Dreyfuss flirted with the cabin boy now clinging to his leg.
So naturally, Dreyfuss selflessly pulls the boy up with every ounce of strength he has left and passes him to Lucas saying, “You’re young… let love find you and never let it go.” He says this as he ironically “lets go” and falls to his heroic death…
“Except fuck that!” says director Petersen, because that doesn’t happen. NOPE! I made that last part up. You think they’d kill Dreyfuss for the cabin boy? Fuck no! What really happens is Lucas screams to Dreyfuss, “DROP HIM!” And Dreyfuss kicks the kid off so he can be pulled to safety. Does anyone mourn? Does anyone apologize or whisper, “You did what you had to…” Nope! Without giving two fucks, Dreyfuss murders the kid!
That’s what this movie is! That’s all this movie needs to be.
There’s another equally ridiculous moment when one character needs to go on a suicide swim to deactivate a propeller so everyone else can escape. Now, you know those scenes in action movies, when a hero is fatally wounded, but lives long enough to speak their dying words or shoot the villain? They do that… with drowning.
The character (in question, no spoilers) very clearly drowns… but then as he (or she) floats by the control panel, he manages a post-mortem button push. Fan-fucking-tastic!
Poseidon is Petersen’s redemption as a filmmaker. It’s unapologetic schlock that gives you exactly what you want. It’s like riding Indiana Jones at Disneyland; I’ll be damned if I know the plot, but there’s a whole lot of fun, action-packed set pieces to go around.
Directed by “The Comeback Kid” Wolfgang Petersen
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