There’s something uniquely satisfying about a one-trick action movie. Don’t drive below 50, get your gang from the Bronx to Coney Island, or, in the case of The Poseidon Adventure, move steadily upward in a capsized ship before you drown. That A-to-B story line can lead to a cheesy and mesmerizing Spencer Gifts sort of movie, the celluloid version of that Happy Drinking Bird you can’t take your eyes off.
The original Poseidon Adventure, released in 1972, produced by disaster great Irwin Allen and starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, and Shelley Winters (among others), was not brilliant, but it was definitely entertaining. A tsunami overturns a cruise ship on New Year’s Eve, and as the ship sinks, a small band of survivors must climb upward to break out. Along the way, two alpha males vie for control, beloved spouses croak, and God’s will is questioned.
NBC’s three-hour TV version tweaks just enough of this formula so Poseidon is updated… and pretty pointless. This time it’s a terrorist bomb that causes the cruise ship’s demise. That’s right, unbeknownst to us, Chechen warlords are really itching to take out Gopher. DHS agent Mike Rogo (Serenity’s Adam Baldwin) must drag the lone surviving terrorist to safety, along with some shell-shocked travelers. These include the ship’s dashing doctor (Ponyboy himself, C. Thomas Howell), failed novelist Richard Clarke (Steve Guttenberg), his successful — and therefore chilly and inattentive — wife (Alexa Hamilton), and Clarke’s new onboard mistress, a masseuse (Nathalie Boltt) who describes herself as ”busty.” I assume that word is a throwback to the ’70s, when it was still in use, like some of the original character’s names — Rogo — that have been dusted off. Poseidon’s best scenes, in fact, are direct homages to the original. The moment of capsize, with black-tied celebrators tumbling from a ballroom floor that’s become the ceiling, is still dizzying. The producers have even recreated that single partygoer’s great crash into a stained-glass sunroof that now sits on the floor like a pointy glass pond. Other highlights include Sylvia Syms, who does a nice clingy version of Shelley Winters’ ultimately redeemed Belle Rosen, and a hilarious scene in which a pop singer (Tinarie Van Wyk) needlessly doffs her dress, heroically providing us with boobs. Sorry, I mean busts.
But, boy, do the writers not understand dramatic tension. The original was creepy because even if the group made it to the top, rescue was far from certain. Here, rescue is not only imminent, it’s pervasive — there are endless cuts to a control room where people give and receive many, many orders. Thrill to the exchange of information! Back on the boat, it’s not much more gripping. There’s no squabbling in the ranks, and pretty much anyone who dies is either bad, moribund, or single and therefore unlikely to be mourned. Hey, thanks for discerning, Death!
Poseidon’s one true service may be as a jump start for a rousing game of Who Should Have a Better Career? Why is Peter ”Robocop” Weller shuffled off after only a handful of lines? How did charismatic Rutger Hauer, so chilling in Blade Runner, get stuck in a bit role as an earnest priest? Doesn’t F/X’s jaunty Bryan Brown deserve more? Most important, why is Baldwin, who’s been a saving grace since 1980’s My Bodyguard, still doing time in lifeless TV movies? First turn off the tube, then discuss.