Of Poseidon and the Adventure
I had a moving experience last night. The Countess and I went to Loews Jersey to see a double bill of A Night to Remember and The Poseidon Adventure. I’ll probably scribble a few notes about the former film here today or tomorrow, but in the meantime, a few remarks about the latter. It has always held a lot of meaning for me, being the first film I ever saw in a cinema (I was 7 when it came out). It turns 40 years old this year — rather a wake-up call. I’ll undoubtedly spill a bunch more on the topic this December when the actual anniversary rolls around, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share an article I wrote for Liberty magazine back in 2006 when the dreadful “remake” Poseidon came out:
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Let’s get one thing straight: Poseidon is in not a remake of the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure. The only thing the two movies have in common is the situation of a luxury liner capsizing, compelling a group of passengers to make a dangerous climb to the upturned hull. If that is all that constitutes a remake, then all westerns are a remake of Gunfight at the OK Corral.
The other thing I must confess is that your reviewer is biased. I am a member of that rabid cult of Poseidon Adventure freaks who watch the film and re-read the novel on an annual basis with the reverence and regularity that some bestow on Christmas (make that New Year’s Eve).
Most of the critics who’ve trashed Wolfgang Petersen’s mislabeled remake have been fairly (or unfairly) dismissive of the original, an unfortunate lapse, because in every area where Poseidon fails, The Poseidon Adventure succeeds. There is no better way to talk about the poverty of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking – or of American culture in general – then to look at how low this ship has sunk in the intervening thirty-four years.
First, while it may be pulp, the film (and the book that inspired it), much like a lot of science fiction or the work of Ayn Rand (here comes the hate mail) is pulp that contains ideas.
That’s the quality that I think inspires such irrational devotion from its followers. A powerful metaphor is at work. A group of ordinary people are thrust into the unknown. Everything they’ve ever known has literally been turned upside-down. They can either stay where they are, cling to the past, and die…or they can make the difficult and painful climb up to life, which “always matters very much”. The terrain of their many layered journey resembles Dante’s Inferno in reverse. Furthermore, they are led by a vaguely Mephistophelean preacher (Gene Hackman) who spouts Christian heresies that most libertarians would recognize as equal parts Walt Whitman, Ayn Rand and Neitzsche. “Don’t pray to God,” he says at one point, “Pray to that part of God within you.” Unlike a Catholic priest (Arthur O’Connell) who elects to remain behind to die with the dead, the wounded and the weak-willed majority, Hackman’s credo is a variation of Poor Richard’s: “The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” What makes him very American, and what makes the film inspirational, is that Hackman’s preacher (unlike, say, a Rand character) doesn’t just want to save his own neck. He makes it a point of pride – a mania, really – to convince as many people as possible to join him. Then he proceeds to kick their asses, morally, spiritually and physically, in a word inspiring them to save themselves. It is a victory of reason over blind faith and a most generous, humane application of “selfishness.” Hackman’s character is a Christ-like anti-Christ, whose greatest sorrow is the loss of a fat old lady (Shelley Winters) whom he helped transform from a whining lump into the highest type of hero. In retrospect, I’m certain that the philosophy of this Darwinian Preacher character, whispered into my impressionable six-year old ear during a Saturday matinee, was my first step on the journey to libertarianism.
So: the original Poseidon Adventure, an inspirational, emotionally affecting suspense picture. Now let’s look at Poseidon. As we know from Das Boot and A Perfect Storm, Wolfgang Peterson is an expert at photographing sinking tubs and the people who drown in them. Unlike those more successful, earlier outings however, this time Peterson forgot to put any people on the boat. If you made a silent movie about rats trapped in an upside down model sailboat (say, Stuart Little’s) and the rats managed to scramble somehow to the top of the boat, the results would be exactly like Poseidon. It is as though Petersen decided to take the last five minutes of A Perfect Storm and expand it to two hours. It may very well be that Petersen has done his science homework and a capsized ocean liner only has minutes before it goes down. That would be all very well and good in a documentary. But a fiction film needs air pockets if we’re to form any attachment to the characters…and we ought to form attachments to the characters if the film is going to have any meaning…and a film should have meaning, shouldn’t it? Poseidon is a large screen video game, less important to us than the accompanying popcorn. We neither know nor care anything about the little band of anonymous ciphers who inhabit this story beyond their names and occupational and familial titles. They are no more important to us than the hundreds of extras who are ritually drowned, crushed, shattered, burned and electrocuted in this mildly violent ballet of death.
And the little we know, we don’t like. Josh Lucas is a cynical gambler and former Navy SEAL who resembles a catalog model. Kurt Russell is a former Mayor of New Yorkand former New Yorkfireman with a really good tan. Emmy Rossum is his pretty daughter who resembles a fashion model. There’s another 6 or 8 like this but it hardly matters; none of them are members of the human race as you or I know it. The original film was about a group of highly imperfect people, people you might not peg as survivors or team players, summoning the strength and the character to go on. They were played by such sex symbols as Shelly Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine (Marty, for god’s sake). Along the way, you got to know these vulnerable people, like them, and consequently, root for them. Lately modern Hollywood repeatedly makes the mistake of thinking we want to root for invulnerable people, and I hope to God they’re wrong because the technical name for that philosophy is fascism. The modern hero is a vigilante on steroids dispatching dozens of bad guys with an AK-47 (or in the case of Poseidon it’s Josh Lucas leaping 100 feet through a burning oil slick into the water beneath in order to rig a special rescue device with a fire hose). But in my book, if the hero is superman the stakes are zero. And why on earth is Kurt Russell a former New York Mayor? It is as though the creators, perceiving that they could not write any characters we could like, opted to replace them with symbolic shorthand for concepts with high Q score. It scans more like a football playbook than what you would call a script. But, contrary to popular belief, you need a script. Without one, all sorts of moral questions go unasked. Stay or go? Live or die? Help the hopeless or save myself? At one point in Poseidon, Richard Dreyfus, as a gay millionaire, is forced to shake off a man who is clinging to his legs for dear life over a burning precipice. Once accomplished, this action, which would be traumatic for any person with a conscience, is never referred to in the film again. This is not good. In these treacherous times, the cinema – all culture – has a role to play in helping us process new realities, and in helping us as citizens of a presumably democratic nation to think and decide the questions of the day. Questions with life-and-death implications for all of us. In light of this, the question on everyone’s lips should not be, “Are we ready for Flight 93?” (we undoubtedly are), but “Are we still able to stomach Poseidon?” Me, I was puking over the rail.