SKIP THE CINEPLEX
You know, human beings just don't look good underwater. Why this revelation didn't occur to me during Titanic, or The Abyss, or even way back at the tail end of Splash, I'm not really sure. Perhaps it's simply that Poseidon, Wolfgang Petersen's mechanical, soulless remake of a 1972 disaster epic that by most reliable accounts (I haven't seen it) wasn't any great shakes to begin with, has so little to offer—even in the way of numbing spectacle—that a little mental flotsam and jetsam becomes inevitable. In any case, every time this film's generically intrepid band of survivors found themselves swimming for their lives, all I could think about was how goofily unattractive they suddenly were. Does depriving somebody of oxygen produce automatic facial contortions, or does the water just magnify existing, usually less noticeable flaws? All the same, those underwater sequences must have struck the actors as a blessing: For a few glorious moments, at least, they weren't required to say anything A) functional or B) stupid.
Fortunately, while the cast frequently looks bloated, Poseidon itself clocks in at a fairly brisk 99 minutes, which means that tedious exposition is kept to a minimum. Genre protocol dictates that we learn of various petty personal difficulties soon to be made irrelevant, and so the script dutifully makes its perfunctory introductions: Josh Lucas (Undertow) is the degenerate gambler with a mercenary streak that hides a core of reluctant empathy; Emmy Rossum (The Phantom of the Opera) has just secretly gotten engaged, to the potential irritation of her domineering dad (Kurt Russell), an ex-mayor of New York; Richard Dreyfuss, sporting a small stud earring that clashes with his prominent liver spots, can't go on without the man who's just dumped him, at least until he sees that massive wave about to engulf the ship; and so forth.
Since Lucas is top-billed, his character's survival is never in doubt—which is too bad, because there are few actors I'd rather see floating face-down in the briny deep. Granted, if he must befoul the big screen, Poseidon is where he belongs, headlining a cast of fading legends (Russell, Dreyfuss) and struggling newcomers (Rossum, Jacinda Barrett, Mia Maestro). But I can't see Lucas' pseudo-knowing smirk without flashing on the image of a teenage bedroom festooned with posters of Han Solo; his screen persona resembles an android's valiant but futile attempt to approximate the young Harrison Ford's rakish charm.
Even with a less irritating protagonist, though, it's hard to imagine how Poseidon could have succeeded. Summer blockbusters tend to live and die by the novelty of their special effects, and James Cameron pretty much closed the market on capsizing-ocean-liner mayhem a decade ago. (Petersen does have an extensive cine-nautical history, but his talent took a sharp nosedive between the clammy claustrophobia of 1981's Das Boot and the pointless disaster porn of 2000's The Perfect Storm.) What keeps the film semi-watchable, really, is the set design, with entire massive rooms constructed upside-down; no matter how banal the dialogue or predictable the action, you can always get a little frisson just by watching the characters carefully navigate their way through the chandeliers jutting up from what is now the Poseidon's ballroom floor. But when you leave the theater remarking on the set design, you've just wasted your money.