Thursday, May 18, 2006


For no good reason, I saw Poseidon this past weekend. I have no defense for this action, but I did it and I'm only moderately ashamed. For one thing, it confirmed something I think we've all suspected: Hollywood can't even make Big Dumb Entertainment as well as it used to.

All we have to do is compare the ruthlessly efficient, utterly personality-free Poseidon to the movie that inspired it, 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. Now regarded as something of a camp classic, much in the original earns that reputation: awful, exposition-heavy dialogue, hideous seventies clothing, a funny performance by Leslie Nielsen before he started doing this sort of thing for laughs.

But considering The Poseidon Adventure as camp is a little unfair. Even one of the things everyone remembers as a joke--Shelley Winters' overwrought performance as a nice, fat Jewish lady--is at least an individualized character, someone we're supposed to care about. All of the characters were vividly drawn, and if the acting tends to the hammy, at least the ham is well-cured: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, vivid actors all. Plus Stella Stevens shown in her panties a lot.

(Okay, a bit of a digression here. I saw The Poseidon Adventure theatrically in a 1973 reissue. It was a family outong, and I was eight. As soon as I realized this thing had Stella Stevens--I'd seen her previously that year in the obscure horror comedy Arnold, in which she's very briefly glimpsed nude--I had to excuse myself and go sit alone, the better to, um, appreciate the wonders of Stella. And her panties.)

As Big Dumb Entertainment, The Poseidon Adventure works just fine. The story of survivors of an overturned ship struggling to survive pulls you in, the special effects and production design are convincing, the broadly-drawn characters squabble entertainingly, and are killed at regular intervals to keep us interested. And it's not entirely soulless: At the very end, when the survivors are rescued, they climb out of the ship and onto a helicopter wearing grim expressions, reminding us that they've been through something and that there lives will never be the same.

At the end of the new film, the survivors are all giddy as obviously CGI-rendered helicopters come to their salvation, although one of these characters just saw her father die only minutes earlier. No matter. No obsessing over life and death here. This is a Summer Blockbuster.

Which means everything we've come to expect from modern Hollywood: Tons of special effects, oppressively loud sound effects, thin characterizations, a fanatical devotion to momentary sensation over coherence or credibility. In place of the cornball dialogue of the original film, we're given...well, more cornball dialogue, but not as entertaining. Terrific actors like Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss are given nothing to do, and "promising" newcomers like Emmy Rossum and Freddy Rodriguez get lost in the flood, more or less literally.

You'd think there'd be something here, a stray poetic image, a frisson of post-9/11 dread, anything. Nah. Not even gratuious panty shots.

The good news is, Poseidon flopped big-time in its opening weekend. Coming on the heels of the smaller than expected grosses for Mission Impossible III, this suggests the beginning of a promising trend. If America can just pull together and make The DaVinci Code a flop as well, who knows? Maybe Hollywood would have no choice but to actually make good movies.