On New Year’s Eve, the good ship Poseidon turns turtle, sending crew and customers crashing through an upside-down death trap. Most survivors await rescue in the ballsed-up ballroom, but a handful of plucky Darwinians know the only way is up – and out through the bottom of the boat. Protective dad, ex-fire-fighter and political bigshot (Kurt Russell) wants to get his newly-engaged daughter to safety, with her fiancé in tow; but it’s an amoral card-sharp (Josh Lucas) who’s got the guts to lead the rag-bag team upwards. A single mum and son, a stowaway girl, and an ageing homosexual architect (Richard Dreyfuss) form the rest of the buoys and girls. Cue all sorts of perils and pitfalls in lift-shafts, flaming corridors and underwater tunnels. And all the time, the water’s coming to get them.
Director Wolfgang Petersen is to boats what Fred Dibnah is to steam engines – he just loves those pipes and pressure gauges, oil and metal. Poseidon creates a credibly claustrophobic topsy-turvy world, CGI mingling with convincing sets, occasionally littered with Dawn of the Dead-style corpses and ghoulish sights. But none too gory - it’s fear, not revulsion, that keeps this ticking. That and the hard-edged agony of choice – as when a leg-clinging good-guy is kicked off and falls to his doom. Full marks to Petersen though for not using a starry cast. Kurt Russell is always watchable but not that famous, so too Dreyfuss. But it’s Josh Lucas who steals the show, with a screen-burning turn as the selfish chancer turned action hero: notable before only for flying-flick Stealth, this one puts him on the map. It even put him in hospital, briefly, following a fall-gone-wrong.
1972’s classic The Poseidon Adventure had bigger names and a longer running-time. But Poseidon goes for the jugular, focusing on primal predicaments, not character-development. The chatty bits are few and lightly done. But we still have a Shelley Winters moment as one of the plucky bunch gets stuck in a shaft, blocking in the others. And in this postmodern age, Poseidon relegates religion – so Gene Hackman’s hero vicar from the earlier film gets shrunk into a crucifix-screwdriver, which brings a salvation of sorts.
Petersen is no stranger to waterborne movies. Cutting his teeth on the claustrophobic U-boat drama Das Boot, he gave George Clooney a soaking in The Perfect Storm. And Poseidon shows his deftness of touch in conveying the suffocating confines of each situation. He’s less assured with special effects – as the sea-shots in Troy amply proved – but his nifty editing here, keeping things at a lick, wisely stops us from noticing.
It’s not a classic, but Poseidon gets you to grip your popcorn and your loved one and makes you feel glad to be alive. At a refreshingly short 98 minutes, it’s lean, mean and efficient. Darwin would have approved.