Welcome, ladies and gentlemen and those still somewhere in between, to the first of what I hope will be many joint voyages we take into the exciting and enlightening world of comparative cinema. For you see, those flickering images projected onto the screen are more than mere diversion. They come from within our shared humanity and reflect our strengths, our weaknesses and our evolution as individuals and society. By examining the blooms from our gardens of imagination, we will learn to better understand ourselves and each other.
There will also be plenty of my pitiful attempts at humor along the way.
Let us begin with two films separated by 34 years and about an eon of human emotion – 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and its 2006 remake, Poseidon. What difference does about a generation and a half mean in filmmaking? A whole lot more than just losing “The” and “Adventure” from the title. I mean, the Irwin Allen-produced original wasn’t exactly an inspired masterpiece but the 21st century version is so inferior in so many ways that I’m not sure I have the physical stamina to keep typing long enough to list them all.
These movies are a great example of what I call “The Godfather Paradigm”. The first Godfather film I saw was Part 3 and, in all honesty, I didn’t think it was that bad. I didn’t get what everyone was so in awe of with the series but the threequel seemed reasonably entertaining. Then I saw Parts 1 and 2 and realized Part 3 was a gigantic, steaming turd. Not just comparatively, either. When you watch something good, it should raise your standards and expectations. When it doesn’t…well, that’s how we all wind up with Michael Bay.
The story, theoretically adapted from the novel by Paul Gallico in both cases but it’s hard to believe the writer of the remake did more than glance at a Cliff’s Notes edition of the original screenplay, is about a giant ocean liner turned upside down by an enormous wave and the hardy band of survivors that fought their way through wreckage and death to salvation. In neither case does it get much more complicated than bad stuff happens, more bad stuff happens, yet more bad stuff happens and then there’s a happy ending. In 1972, however, that was brought to life as a schlocky 70s opening that gave way to effectively claustrophobic tension and shocking thematic ambition. In 2006, they turned it into a live-action version of the underwater level in a bad video game.
The Poseidon Adventure has a starkly Ayn Randian man of the cloth named Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) dragging a loudmouth cop (Ernest Borgnine), the cop’s ex-prostitute wife (Stella Stevens), a cherubically middle-aged bachelor (Red Buttons), a couple on their way to Israel to see their grandson (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), a super annoying kid and his big sister (Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin), a hippie lounge singer (Carol Lynley) and an Irish ship’s steward (Roddy McDowall) up one deck after another, through flames and rising water and flooded hallways by sheer force of will. Scott isn’t one who just believes God helps those who help themselves. He thinks you should help yourself and tell God to go jump in a lake.
Poseidon has a handsome yet nebulous card sharp named Dylan (Josh Lucas), a handsome and doting father who also happens to be an ex-firefighter and ex-mayor of New York (Kurt Russel), the ex-mayor’s generic hot daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her so-generic-he-should-have-a-barcode-instead-of-a-face boyfriend (Mike Vogel), a hot single mom (Jacinda Barett) and her inoffensive but utterly useless son (Jimmy Bennet), a hot Latina stowaway (Mia Maestro), the cute ship’s waiter the Latina stowaway is shtupping for a free ride across the ocean (Freddy Rodriguez), a middle-aged and suicidal gay guy who also happens to be an architect (Richard Dreyfuss) and an oily jerk (Kevin Dillon). Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Kevin Dillon playing a jerk? Who would have ever expected it?
Now, which of those strikes you as a believably real group of actual people and which seems like a collection of clichés and tropes cranked out by a screenwriter with a lack of talent and a deadline bearing down on him? And you may have noticed my subtle references to the different levels of physical attractiveness in the two casts. Poseidon opens with an image of Josh Lucas staring across the waves and I couldn’t help but notice that he is prettier than everybody in The Poseidon Adventure put together, including Stella Stevens and Pamela Sue Martin. What happened to us in the last 40 years? How did we go from big movie stars who could look like plumbers or hardware store owners to supporting, supporting, supporting actors having to be at least good looking enough to model underwear in the JC Penny catalog?
Does JC Penny even have a catalog anymore? Good grief, I feel old.
And since I’m on the subject of Josh Lucas, why isn’t this guy a bigger star? Yeah, he’s in this turkey but Bradley Cooper was in stuff like The Midnight Meat Train and The Rocker. Cooper’s big break was The Hangover where he played third banana to Ed Helms and Zach Galifinakis. That was enough to launch him into A-List Hollywood orbit? Lucas couldn’t have done that role just as well? And it’s not like Cooper followed up The Hangover with a string of gems. He was in Case 39, All About Steve, Valentine’s Day, the A-Team, Limitless, The Hangover Part II, The Words and The Place Beyond the Pines. Why couldn’t Lucas get an audition for Silver Linings Playbook?
One of the three big differences between these films is that The Poseidon Adventure has characters who respond in realistically imperfect ways to each other and the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves. They have legitimate conversations that have a point and everything. When they have arguments, it’s over perfectly understandable differences or emotional outbursts. Poseidon has cardboard standups who barely say more than two sentences to each other at a time and while they do plenty of yelling, I’m not sure there was one significant difference of opinion between any of them in the whole movie. I don’t know about you but if I was trapped in a life-or-death situation with a bunch of strangers, I think I’d be a little cranky and quick to challenge anything anybody else said. The Poseidon bunch behave more like Green Berets who’ve been training together for years.
The second big difference is in the way these two flicks look and I don’t just mean the jawdropping hairstyles and fashions of the 70s. The special effects and stunts of Poseidon look about a million times more impressive than The Poseidon Adventure. It doesn’t mean as much as it could because while you care what happens to the characters in the latter, the ones in the former could turn into fish food without any viewer shedding a tear. The FX also work against the remake in some ways. The smaller, enclosed sets of The Poseidon Adventure make it feel like the characters are truly trapped with danger behind and the unknown ahead. The sets and computer generated scenes of Poseidon are so huge and expansive it feels less like a sinking ship and more like they’re running around the Mall of America.
The third big difference is the music. Specifically, how each motion picture uses its soundtrack. In 1972, the dramatic music swells up when nothing is happening to try and maintain the anxiety. When something is happening, like a snarling dispute between Hackman and Borgnine or someone is in danger, the film is quiet and lets the action stand on its own. In Poseidon, the dramatic music is always there and usually gets worse in the most action-packed moments. It’s as if 2006 viewers are thought to be so numb and dumb they won’t respond unless they get hit in the head with a sonic hammer to remind them what they’re seeing is supposed to be thrilling.
Oh, and one more thing. In 1972, they actually explain what’s going on. The ship gets a radio message about an undersea quake causing a displacement. They see something coming on their radar. They simply can’t turn fast enough to avoid the massive wave. In 2006, there’s no radio message. There’s no radar. A guy on the bridge says something “feels wrong” and no one notices the 300 foot tall wall of water coming at them until someone looks out the window with a pair of binoculars. Progress?
The Poseidon Adventure is fun in the old appeal-to-the-broadest-possible-audience tradition for which Hollywood used to be known. Poseidon is indifferent tripe, with which Hollywood is too often identified today.